WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) Experts say it's too early to tell yet if the economic downturn in 2008 will lead to more crime, but the first signs from the FBI are encouraging.
In 2008, reported crime fell overall across the country as murder and manslaughter cases dropped almost 4 percent last year,according to new data released Monday by the FBI.
The 3.9 percent decline in killings reported to police was part of a nationwide drop in violent crime of 1.9 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Rapes fell to the lowest national number in 20 years - about 89,000 or 1.6 percent.
The statistics are based on crimes reported to police, who then forward the information to the FBI. There were 14,180 murder victims in the United States last year.
"What has been impressive has been how flat all the violent crime rates have been since 2000. To a large degree that's still the case, but the striking change this year has been murder," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor of criminal justice at Carnegie-Mellon University.
The figures show that crime has come way down since its peak in the early 1990's.
"These are rates we haven't seen since the 1960's, even though the change from year to year has been rather small," said Blumstein.
Property crimes declined overall, by 0.8 percent, but that was driven mostly by a 12.7 percent drop in car thefts. The other major categories of property crime - burglaries and larceny-thefts - both rose.
Regionally, the South had the highest crime rate, with 4,315 reported violent and property crimes per 100,000 people. The region with the lowest crime rate was the Northeast, which had 2,620 reported crimes per 100,000 people.
Typically, crime is expected to rise during economic hard times, but Blumstein said last year's data was too early in the economic cycle to reflect that, because the most serious economic impacts came toward the end of 2008, and may not have affected teenagers - the group most likely to turn to crime as their job prospects dwindle.
Blumstein said it will take more time to see if crime's downward trend will continue through 2009, despite the recession.
The data are similar to preliminary figures announced by the bureau in June.
James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University, said the falling murder rate of the past decade has yet to reach one key part of society.
"From 2000 up until 2007, murders have been down across the board except among young black males, where there's been a fairly substantial rise," said Fox.