Serious crime fell for the fourth year in a row in 1995, with murder dropping a remarkable 8 percent - the third-sharpest one-year decline in more than 30 years.
America's largest cities led the way, recording steep reductions in all categories of violent crime, according to an FBI report released Sunday. Experts credit more effective police tactics and the maturation of once-violent drug markets with contributing to the good news.But there's bad news, too, scholars warn: While overall crime is going down, crime among teens - particularly violent crime - has been rising sharply. With the number of teens due to increase over the next decade, experts say, the nation soon may see an explosion of juvenile violence to rival the drug-driven carnage of the late 1980s.
"This is the calm before the crime storm," said James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's great that crime is down now, but if we start celebrating our successes, we may be blindsided by a bloodbath."
The new report, the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, reflects the number of incidents reported to police agencies in eight major crime categories. Its results are preliminary and do not allow an analysis of trends among juveniles in 1995.
But, for the moment at least, the report does allow Americans everywhere the chance for a small sigh of relief.
Nationally, the report shows serious crime fell 2 percent last year, with property crimes down 1 percent and violent crimes down 4 percent.
Crime fell in every category except theft and in every region of the country, dropping most sharply - 4 percent - in the Northeast. The Midwest saw a 2 percent decline; the South and West saw 1 percent reductions.
Murder declined most dramatically, falling 8 percent to about 21,400 murders for 1995, down from a peak of about 24,700 murders in 1991, according to FBI statistics.
Since the FBI began keeping complete records in 1960, only two years have seen sharper drops in murder: 1983, when the number fell 8.1 percent, and 1976, when it fell 8.4 percent.
Some experts were reluctant to read too much into the fact that the nation was substantially less lethal last year.
Howard Snyder, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, noted that the number of murders in America has hovered around 20,000 since about 1975.
"Over the last 20 years, nothing has really happened. There's never been any really big change," said Snyder, who analyzes juvenile crime for the U.S. Justice Department. "Things go up and then they tend to come back down, like a swing."
Other experts agreed that the drop probably represents a simple leveling off of murder rates in major cities, where murder skyrocketed during rapid expansion of crack cocaine in the late 1980s.
Indeed, just five big cities - New York, Houston, Chicago, San Antonio, New Orleans and Detroit - accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total reduction in murders last year.