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Crime rate down despite lean times

Ask the average person what they expect on the violent crime front when the economy is staggering along, and you most likely would get a response that it would be up.

That makes sense. As people lose jobs and prospects, tension builds and, eventually one would think, bubbles over in the form of outbursts that can easily lead to violence.

Turns out, Americans improved their behavior in this regard more last year than they have any year since 2001.

And if that’s a bit confusing to you, don’t fret. The experts are stumped, too.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported Friday that, even though the economy was weak and unemployment was above 10 percent in 2010, the instances of violent crime nationwide fell a whopping 12 percent. The agency said that last year there were 3.8 million violent crimes committed in the United States — still a huge number by any standard, but also much lower than the 4.3 million violent acts that occurred in 2009.

According to an Associated Press report on the findings, more than 80 percent of the decline in violent crime came about because simple assaults, which account for two out of three violent crimes committed in the U.S., dropped by 15 percent in 2010. The combined total of property crimes and violent crimes also was down sharply last year, falling from 20 million in 2009 to 18.7 million in 2010, a 6.6 percent decline.

In a period of bad economic trends, this is a bright spot. The statistics indicate that when you look at the issue on a per capita basis — violent crimes per 1,000 people — the decline is still there, even when taking into account population growth.

According to the report, the instances of violent crime per capita have fallen by a huge rate — 70 percent. In 1993, there were 49.9 violent crimes per 1,000 people 12 years old and older nationwide. Last year, that number was at 14.9 per 1,000. Also, from 2001 through 2010, the rate of property crime dropped by more than a quarter — 28 percent.

The FBI’s final numbers on violent and property crimes were expected to reflect the bureau’s report after that agency’s preliminary numbers showed declines.

One interesting aspect of this is perception vs. reality. Many perceive the United States as a more violent nation these days, particularly when you take into consideration some of the high-profile assaults that have been reported, such as the Fort Hood gunman in 2009, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and the January shooting this year in Tucson that left a federal judge dead and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords badly wounded.

Bombarded with around-the-clock recaps by TV networks shouting for attention in an increasingly fragmented information world, it’s easy to think the entire United States has reverted to Wild West days of high-noon gunfights in the streets.

While we do have our share of violent crime, it’s good to know that the numbers are actually heading in the right direction.