The nation's crime rate was unchanged last year, holding at the lowest levels since the government began surveying crime victims in 1973, the Justice Department reported yesterday.
Since 1993, violent crime as measured by victim surveys has fallen by 57 percent and property crime by 50 percent. That has included a 9 percent drop in violent crime from 2001-2002 to 2003-2004.
The 2004 violent crime rate -- assault, sexual assault and robbery -- was 21.4 victims for every 1,000 people age 12 and older. That amounts to about one violent crime victim for every 47 U.S. residents.
By comparison, there were 22.6 violent crime victims per 1,000 people in 2003. The Bureau of Justice Statistics said the difference between the rates in 2003 and 2004 was statistically insignificant.
Homicide is not counted because the bureau's study is based on statements by crime victims. In a separate report based on preliminary police data, the FBI found a 3.6 percent drop between 2003 and 2004 -- from 16,500 to 15,910. Chicago was largely responsible for the decrease.
The survey put the rate for property crimes of burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft in 2004 at 161 for every 1,000 people, compared with 163 the year before.
Many explanations have been advanced for the decline in violent crime, including the record prison population of more than 2 million people, the addition of 100,000 police officers since the mid-1990s and a deterrent effect that terrorism might have had on street crime.
"Success has 1,000 fathers," said Mark A.R. Kleiman, an expert on crime control policy who is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Kleiman said the victim survey probably does not take sufficient account of a growing problem with gang violence that has been widely reported across the country. The leveling off of the crime rate also should be viewed as disappointing, he said.
"My sense is that complacency is not justified. This rate means we're down to about twice the level of crime when I was growing up in the 1950s," he said.
The Justice Policy Institute, an organization that advocates alternatives to incarceration, said the report offered good news and further reason to "begin investing in community-based policing and local organizations that succeed in increasing public safety."
The National Crime Victimization Survey is based on annual interviews by Census Bureau personnel with about 150,000 people at least 12 years old. The FBI does a separate crime study based on reports it receives from thousands of law enforcement agencies.