A report released Sunday called the one-year drop "marginally significant," driven by a small but significant decline in aggravated assault rates.
"From 1997 to 1998, no significant changes in rates of rape or sexual assault, robbery or simple assault occurred," said this year's National Crime Victimization Survey. Rape and sexual assault were the only categories not to show a decline in 1997.
The general 1998 decline continued a downward trend that began in 1994, the survey said.
Attorney General Janet Reno said there is no one reason for the drop. But she gave Clinton administration policies credit for combining the effects of several strategies.
"It's because of more police officers on the streets, tougher sentences, more prosecutions, better prevention programs, a healthy economy and a new approach to crime fighting that involves a closer working relationship between communities and federal, state and local law enforcement," Reno said.
Republicans have said they are relieved over the decline but warn that crime rates remain unacceptably high. They also have pointed to passage of anti-crime legislation since the GOP took majority control of Congress in 1995.
The report said that from 1993 to 1998, rates of violent crime rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault fell 27 percent, from 50 per 1,000 Americans age 12 or older to 37 per 1,000.
"Every major type of crime measured, rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft decreased significantly between 1993 and 1998," the study said.
The annual survey of American households excludes killings, because it asks individuals about their own experiences.
But the report said preliminary figures released separately by the FBI have shown that the number of murders dropped about 8 percent between 1997 and 1998.
Each year the victimization survey analyzes data on nonfatal violent crimes reported to police and those not reported to police. "In 1998 approximately 43,000 households and 80,000 people age 12 or older were interviewed," the report said.
According to the report, attackers used a weapon in about a fourth of violent offenses in 1998. "About 40 percent of robbery victims faced a weapon, as did 9 percent of rape or sexual assault victims," the Justice Department said in a written statement. "Eight percent of all violent victimizations were committed by offenders armed with a firearm."
About half of all victims of violent crimes knew their assailants, Justice officials said. More than 70 percent of rape and sexual assault victims knew their attackers, and 50 percent of aggravated ssault victims did.
"Almost half of all violent victimizations and about one-third of all property crimes were reported to police each year from 1993 to 1998," the statement said. "Females and blacks were more likely to report violent crimes than males and whites."
The survey also revealed a 12 percent drop in property crimes burglary, motor vehicle theft and household theft last year and a 32 percent drop since 1993. Personal thefts, which include pocket picking and purse snatching, remained unchanged.
Motor vehicle thefts fell 22 percent from 1997 to 1998 because of a 20 percent drop in "completed motor vehicle theft" and a 27 percent decline in attempted vehicle theft.
Violent crimes against blacks fell from 49 victimizations per 1,000 people to 42 per 1,000, the report said. Rates for Hispanics fell from 43 per 1,000 to 33 per 1,000.
Blacks still had a marginally higher overall violent crime victimization rate than whites and significantly higher rates than people of other races last year.
Blacks and whites did not differ significantly in the rates of victimization by robbery, simple assault, rape and sexual assault, however.
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