The nation’s violent crime rate declined slightly last year after two years of increases, the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics said today in its annual victimization survey.
That may signal a return to the nearly two-decade-long downward trend in violent crime before 2011.
The victimization report is based on an annual scientific survey of Americans on whether they had been victimized in the previous year. The interviews included about 90,630 households and 160,040 persons last year.
It differs from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which is based on voluntary submissions from local police departments of crimes reported to them. Many criminologists consider the victimization survey a more accurate picture of the nation’s crime, because the FBI’s data are incomplete.
Crimes unreported to police are included in the victimization survey. Last year, only 36 percent of property crimes and 46 percent of violent crime were reported to authorities. (Because the survey is based on reports from victims, it does not include homicides.)
The total numbers of actual victimizations estimated were 6.1 million violent crimes and 16.8 million property crimes.
Intimate partner violence is a major topic in the news recently after video became public of suspended professional football player Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator.
Overall, the victimization survey reported a fairly big drop in such cases last year, to 748,800 from 810,790 the previous year. The total estimated a decade ago was 1,031,720.
Because of all the reported offenses, the difference between the victimization survey results and the FBI’s compilation is striking. For 2012, the last full year the FBI data are available, the bureau reported only about 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.9 million property crimes.
Last year’s drop in violent crime was mostly the result of a slight decline in one category, simple assault, which is violence that does not involve a weapon or serious injury. There were no statistically significant changes in most other crime types.
One category that did drop significantly was violence committed by people who were strangers to the victims, often the most disturbing kinds of cases. Such crimes fell from 665,850 in 2012 to 497,920 last year.
The FBI has not yet issued its own report for 2013, but the bureau’s report on the first six months of year included notable decreases of 5.4 percent in both violent crime and property crime.
Annual results of the two major federal reports–victimization and FBI–do not always coincide because of their different methodologies.
Still, the overall trends in the last two decades are consistent in both reports: crime around the nation generally has declined sharply.
The new results will raise more questions about a Justice Department report issued just two days ago finding that prisoner totals unexpectedly rose last year.
Critics question why more people should be behind bars while crime is dropping.
The basic answer is that there is not necessarily a connection between the two sets of numbers.
About 450,000 people entered prison last year as a result of a court sentence. That is only a small fraction of the 6.1 million violent crimes. Most crimes don’t lead to arrests or prosecutions, and only some of those cases result in an offender going to prison.
So it is very possible for the crime rate to be going slightly in one direction and the imprisonment rate slightly in the other, as was the case in 2013.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and washington bureau chief of The Crime report. He welcomes comments from readers.