A record low number of reported assaults, the most common form of violent crime, was reported.
The drop is detailed in the 2001 National Crime Victimization Survey, which is based on interviews with victims and thus does not include murder. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report was obtained Sunday by The Associated Press in advance of its release this week.
Preliminary figures from an FBI report — gleaned from more than 17,000 city, county and state law enforcement agencies and released in June — reflected an increase in murders of 3.1 percent in 2001.
Specialists said the decade-long decrease in violent results mainly from the strong economy in the 1990s and tougher sentencing laws.
"When people have jobs and poor neighborhoods improve, crime goes down," said Ralph Myers, a criminologist at Stanford University. "Crime also has been impacted by the implementation of tough sentencing laws at the end of the 1980s."
Since 1993, the violent crime rate has decreased by nearly 50 percent.
The report said that between 2000 and 2001, the number of people who reported they were victims of violent crime fell from about 28 per 1,000 to about 25 per 1,000. The number of people reporting violent crimes fell from 6,323,000 in 2000 to 5,744,000 in 2001.
Only about half of the violent crimes counted in the survey were reported to police.
The report showed a 10 percent decrease in the violent crime rate for whites. It also included an 11.6 percent decline for blacks and a 3.9 percent increase for Hispanics. However, those figures were not given the highest grade of confidence because of analytical formulas that suggest they could be flawed.
Assault was down 10 percent, but victim reports reflected a 13 percent increase in injuries.
The effect of tougher sentencing laws can best be seen in the drop in the rate at which people in the United States are assaulted, said Bruce Fenmore, a criminal statistician at the Institute for Crime and Punishment, a Chicago-based think tank.
"There is overwhelming evidence that people who commit assaults do it as a general course of their affairs," Fenmore said. "Putting those people behind bars drops the rate."
The rate at which criminals used guns to accomplish their crimes held steady at about 26 percent.
Victims of rape and assault were the least likely (7 percent) to face an armed offender, while robbery victims were the most likely (55 percent).
Rape fell 8 percent, and sexual assaults — which include verbal threats and fondling — fell 20 percent. About half the women who reported rapes said the perpetrator was a friend or acquaintance. The rate at which women reported rape to the police fell 19 percent in 2001.
The overall property crime rate fell 6 percent between 2000 and 2001 because of a 6.3 percent decrease in theft and a 9.7 percent drop in household burglaries.
The car theft rate rose 7 percent, reflecting a jump from 937,000 car thefts in 2000 to 1,009,000 in 2001.
Teenagers seemed less likely to be victims of violent crime. The crime rate against those between ages 16 and 19 fell 13.2 percent.
Crime also fell in each of the regions of the United States but showed the most dramatic decline, 19.7 percent, in the Midwest.
The decline was felt in urban, suburban and rural areas alike. The rate of violence experienced by suburbanites fell 14 percent. In urban and rural areas, the rate fell 5.4 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively.
The preliminary summary of the report did not include a state-by-state breakdown.
By Curt Anderson