Serious Crime Takes A Dive

The FBI reported Sunday that serious crimes reported to police decreased by five percent in 1998, marking the seventh straight year in a row.

Both murder and robbery rates reached lows not seen in three decades, and as CBS News Correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis reports, this unremitting drop off is the result of several factors.

During 1998, all violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) and all the far more numerous property crimes (burglary, auto theft and larceny-theft) dropped in both number and rate.

The overall violent crime rate in the U.S., 566 murders, rapes, robberies and assaults per 100,000 residents, dropped to its lowest figure since 556 in 1985, just before an epidemic of crack-cocaine sent it soaring.

The FBI report showed the use of guns to commit murder and robbery is also decreasing. And one of the most terrifying crimes that rose along with the crack epidemic, murder by a stranger, dropped below half of all murders to 48 percent for only the second time during the 1990s.

"Most of these reductions are taking place in our larger cities and we [are]Â…trying to understand why crime has been going down," criminologist Richard Bennett of American University told CBS News.

"We have incarcerated our criminals andÂ…taken them out of the population," said Bennett. "Of course, you've heard a lot about zero tolerance. The idea that what is taking place in New York City and other cities, that we've increased police patrol and are cracking down on crime, that has impacts upon crime."

Bennett said the change in drug markets also has a lot to do with diminishing crime levels. "We're moving out of the crack-cocaine era and the type of violence associated with it," he added.

While many credit the booming economy, Bennett says research supporting that theory is sketchy.

"Most of the research says [the economy] has an effect," Bennett explained, "But one of the problems we have in looking at them is our measurementsÂ….A lot of the people involved in crime, especially juvenilesÂ…are not in the labor market. So fluctuations in the unemployment rate, as we measure them, will not have a correlation with the actual crime rate."

Criminologists also pointed out the national figures obscured a lingering problem. Although teenage murders have been cut in half since their peak in 1993, they remain almost twice as high as in 1984 before crack gangs began arming some teenagers, and their schoolmates got guns to copy them or to protect themselves.

Although there were highly publicized mass shootings by students at a handful of suburban or rural schools, the overall incidence of deadly violence at schools has been declining as well.

The violent crime rate, which adjusts for population growth, was down 7.3 percent, led by an 11.3 percent decline for robbery and a 7.4 percent drop for murder. The aggravated assault rate was down 5.7 prcent to the lowest level in a decade. The rape rate declined 4.2 percent to the lowest in 15 years.

The property crime rate fell 6.2 percent, down 9.3 percent for auto theft, 6.2 percent for burglary and 5.7 percent for larceny-theft.

"This is good news for America's families, and it shows we can indeed turn the tide on crime," President Clinton said of the FBI report. But, he added, "even as crime falls, we must not let down our guard. That is why we must redouble our efforts to build on what works....Together, we can make America the safest big nation in the world."

While Republicans credited their legislation encouraging longer prison sentences, criminologists cited the aging of baby boomers past crime-prone years and the decline of crack markets.

In 1998, rural areas, the last places reached by the crack gangs, finally joined in the decline in crime volumes and rates that big cities and smaller cities have seen for several years. The year before, rural areas had seen a one percent increase in crime total from 1996.

Crime also dropped in every region: down seven percent in the Northeast and West, five percent in the South and four percent in the Midwest.