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Published: Monday, 9/20/2004

A bite out of crime?

GOOD for us. The Justice Department has released a study based on surveys of crime victims that indicates violent crime - not including murder - is either declining or at least not increasing. A separate preliminary report by the FBI based on police data, shows a slight increase in murders between 2002 and 2003, but let's not rain on Justice's parade.

The department's 2003 report on violent crime, which includes assault, sexual assault, and armed robbery, is welcome indeed. Rates reveal a continued downward trend that began over the last decade. The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau with about 150,000 crime victims, finds violent crime falling 55 percent.

Property crime last year dropped by 49 percent. The new survey has included a 14 percent drop in violent crime from 2000-2001 to 2002-2003.

"The rates are the lowest experienced in the last 30 years," said Justice Department statistician Shannon Catalona in the report. In 2003 violent crime affected about one of every 44 Americans. By comparison, in 1993 the violent crime rate was about one victim for every 20 people.

Between 1993 and 2003 violent crime has dropped in every income category by at least 40 percent.

Property crimes like burglary, theft, and car theft victimized roughly 163 of every 1,000 U.S. residents compared to a decade ago when property crimes made 319 victims out of every 1,000 residents.

The reason violent crime seems to have leveled off in the country is more difficult to quantify. Some social scientists have theorized that violent crime is on the decline because the population is getting older, because the drug trade is less violent, or because police have made high-crime areas targets of focused enforcement.

But it could also be because the nation's prison population is at a record high of 2.1 million or perhaps the additional law enforcement measures adopted after 9/11 had a deterrent effect on routine street crime as well as security breaches.

Whatever the answer, it's good for us that progress is slowly being made in reducing the violent crime rate. But the downside is political. A low crime rate takes what is still a serious issue completely off the radar screen in national political campaigns.

Unfortunately, it may take gun markets flooded with AK-47s, Uzis, and TEC-9s to bring the issue of stable but unacceptable crime rates to the forefront of political debate again.

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