Crime keeps dropping, but for how long?

With serious crime down 7 percent last year, America is eight years into its longest-running crime decline on record.

Preliminary figures for crimes reported in 1999 extend a trend begun in 1992. That decline, the FBI reported, is now nearly three times longer than the second-longest decline - the three years from 1982 through 1984.

Still, some experts see signs that crime rates are bottoming out - and warn that the nation will need to remain vigilant to keep them from rising again.

Behind that expectation is the fact that the crime rate for 1999 declined at a slower pace in the nation's largest cities. "They [major cities] are the leaders both on the way up and on the way down," says Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The FBI report said all seven major types of crime were down not only nationwide, but also in each region of the nation, and in suburbs, rural areas, and in cities of all sizes.

Violent crimes - murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - were down a combined 7 percent. The property crimes of burglary, auto theft, and larceny-theft also were down a combined 7 percent.

Mr. Blumstein says the record eight-year decline "may be finally undoing the great rise in crime of the late 1960s."

THE nation's longest and steepest crime rise - increases of 10.2 to 13.8 percent from 1965 through 1969 - came as baby boomers reached adulthood and "civil rights and Vietnam War protests increased distrust of government," Blumstein says.

But crime trends may soon flatten out, say he and other academics.

In 1999, murder, the most fully reported crime, was down just 2 percent in cities over 500,000 population. It was still falling more dramatically elsewhere, by between 7 and 14 percent in smaller cities, 12 percent in suburbs, and 17 percent in rural areas.

Like Blumstein, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston noted smaller crime-rate declines in the largest cities.

"They will be the first to reach the bottom," Mr. Fox says, pointing out that murders in New York actually rose a bit in 1999, from 633 to 671. "The challenge is to be sure the numbers don't go back up to any great degree."

The nation's record prison population provides only "temporary relief," Fox adds, "because those people will come out of prison, and many will still have inadequate skills and bad attitudes."

While Democrats and Republicans each pointed proudly to anticrime measures they had championed, academic experts credited both parties' favorite anticrime nostrums - as well as a range of factors beyond politicians' control, such as the aging of the baby boomers.

CORRECTION

In an article about the United Nations (May 8, Page 6), US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's term as president of the Security Council was incorrect. He was president in January.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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