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Crime Wave Sweeps Britain

Country music singer Tim McGraw poses for photographs during a ceremony honoring him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 17, 2006.
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Despite its reputation as a genteel and pleasant land, a new government report depicts Britain as one of the most violent urban societies in the Western world, a place where a person's chances of being assaulted, burgled or robbed are substantially greater than in the United States.

People outside of the UK are most familiar with the violence of British soccer fans, who recently disrupted the Euro 2000 tournament in Belgium. But CBS News Senior European Correspondent Tom Fenton reports that while violent crime in America has been going down for 20 years, the latest government study shows that it is on the rise in Britain itself.

A person is more likely to be burglarized, almost twice as likely to be robbed, and two-and-a-half times more likely to be assaulted there than in America.

The British Broadcasting Corporation reports that the Home Office's yet-to-be-released figures are expected to show a 19 percent increase in violent crime nationwide from March 1999-March 2000, with robberies in London jumping 38 percent.

Those figures belie police crime statistics, which show lower incidences of violence. Stats released in February, for example, suggested an overall drop of 1 percent in crime nationwide.

But British police statistics are deeply flawed, as only one in four assaults ever gets recorded. The reality is the streets and shopping malls of Britain are a battleground.

In one case getting media coverage in London, an American schoolteacher on a class trip to London was drugged and raped over the weekend. Police have asked the public for help identifying a suspect.

86-year-old Irene Coles is a more typical victim of British crime. She almost died of a skull fracture after being mugged right on her doorstep.

"I am really lucky to be here," says Coles. "The police told me he done it six times—just got out of jail and he done the same thing."

The attacker was a serial mugger, who was jailed many times but never for long. Experts say the lax sentencing laws that permitted him to be on the streets are one reason why crime is getting worse here.

"I think that the deterrence, especially since the 'three strikes and you are out' legislation in the U.S., has been much greater in the U.S. than here," says Dr. John Shepherd, an emergency room physician used to patching up people slashed with bottles and injured in bar brawls.

Yet the Home Office reported in February that a Council of Europe study of nine countries found that courts in England and Wales sentenced offenders to the second-longest terms of imprisonment for offences like assault, robbery and theft. Portugal was first.

While assaults may be up, Britain can still claim one of the lowest murder rates in Western Europe. However, if guns were added to Britain's violent mix, says Shepherd, "it would be mayhem."

Crime trends suggest mayhem might be on the way. This year there have already been hundreds of shootings in ritish cities, dozens in London alone—three of them in one evening recently.

As in the U.S., crime reduction has become a major issue in British politics, be it enhancing the registry of sex offenders, announcing steps to combat youth crime or burglar-proofing homes.

London's Metropolitan Police last week announced a new strategy for combating crime called "Safer Streets: London Against Crime," a community policing strategy in which police will develop crime suppression plans tailored for individual neighborhoods.