The decline last year amounted to 5.5 percent for violent crime compared to 2008 and the rate for property crime was down 4.9 percent.
It's the third consecutive annual drop in violent crime and the largest percentage-wise, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
The FBI collected the crime data from more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies around the country.
According to the numbers, all four categories of violent crime declined compared to 2008 - robbery, murder, aggravated assault and forcible rape.
Violent crime in the South fell by 6.6 percent, dropped 5.6 percent in the West, declined 4.6 percent in the Midwest and went down 3.5 percent in the Northeast.
Violent crime declined 4 percent in metropolitan counties and 3 percent elsewhere, the FBI reported.
Nationwide, the murder rate was down 7.2 percent last year.
The largest decrease in murders - 7.5 percent - took place in cities of half a million to a million in population. The only increase in murders - 5.3 percent - occurred in cities with 25,000 to 50,000 people.
Washington, D.C. had 43 fewer homicides and Atlanta had 25 fewer murders, reports Orr. Some cities bucked the downward trend - Detroit, for example, saw murders increase from 323 in 2008 to 361 in 2009.
Robbery dropped 8.1 percent, aggravated assault declined 4.2 percent and forcible rape was down 3.1 percent.
The FBI had expected an overall drop in crime numbers, but the scope of the decrease is surprising, Orr reports. Criminologists say crime often goes up in periods of economic stress, fueled by unemployment and police budget cuts. But, that did not happen 2009.
"There are a lot of tools that are keeping cops two steps ahead of the crooks," said Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox.
Fox said the criminal justice system has done a good job of dealing with violence among at-risk youth, and police departments have better technology and other ways to gather information so law enforcement resources are used more effectively to investigate crime and apprehend offenders.
Long-term, said Fox, "there is a connection between an economic downturn and crime: budget cuts create significant challenges in keeping crime rates low. We have increasing numbers of at-risk youth in the population and they need services. We need to reinvest in crime prevention or else the good news we see today could evaporate."
The numbers are preliminary. They will be updated later this year.