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U.S. violent crime falls slightly

But national one-year averages mask better progress in big cities and a crime rise in the South.

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For example, while the rates of murder committed by whites, by black women, and by black men over 24 years old have gone down since 2002, among black men between the ages of 14 and 24, murder increased 52 percent from 2002 to 2006, says James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Since the preliminary crime report doesn't release demographic statistics, he hasn't yet been able to analyze the 2007 numbers.

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"What you have is a general downturn in violence, which covers a sharp increase among one segment of the population, particularly inner-city young black males," says Mr. Fox. "Gangs have made a comeback, and because of illegal gun markets guns are easily getting into the hands of youngsters…. There's a generation of kids who aren't really focused on the future, and unfortunately, too many are killing each other."

Prevention programs – after-school programs, summer jobs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and more police on the street in targeted areas – are all needed, says Fox, but slimming city budgets mean they're often getting cut instead.

The big increase in homicides has been caused by gun violence, he adds, and yet most gun legislation has gotten less restrictive.

The other problem, say experts, is focusing too much on year-to-year statistics – which may be exaggerated because of a dip or rise the previous year – and on broad national statistics rather than more specific localized ones.

The big drug-connected crime spike in the late 1980s and early '90s, for instance, occurred largely in big cities, with handguns, among youths. "If you had looked at the overall national data, you might have missed it," says Jack Levin, codirector of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University.

Violence also tends to go hand in hand with economic conditions, he says, noting that more impoverished Southern states and cities often see the worst violence. In these latest statistics, the South was the only region to see an overall uptick in violent crimes, up 0.7 percent, though the trend, again, varied by city. Homicides were up significantly in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, Fla., but down in Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala.

"Poverty has an impact on crime in two ways," says Professor Levin. "First by creating more desperate individuals who use the illegitimate system because they don't believe the mainstream works for them, and second by reducing and maybe eliminating effective crime-fighting policies and programs." Given that, he says, the worsening economic conditions right now offer some cause for concern.