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Sharp Drop in Violent Crime Rates

WASHINGTON - Nearly all major crime categories dropped in 2008 despite the sagging economy and high unemployment, according to the FBI's annual crime report out Monday.

Overall violent crime declined for the second straight year, including a nearly 4% drop in murder and a 2.5% drop in aggravated assault.

Although burglary was up 2%, car thefts plunged by nearly 13%, according to the report, which includes crime statistics from about 17,000 law enforcement agencies. Among other findings:

The largest overall declines were recorded in the West, where murder was down 6.8% and car thefts dropped by nearly 17%.

The 89,000 rapes recorded in 2008 were the fewest in two decades.

Of the 14,180 murder victims in 2008, 2,428 were victims ages 20 to 24.

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has advised the Justice Department on homicide trends, says it is hard to know how the poor economy affected crime because of the relatively short, one-year period measured in the report. "You have to examine this over a longer period of time," Fox says.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank, says police chiefs disagree about whether a bad economy spurs crime.

He says the slight rise in burglaries is "consistent" with concern voiced by police officials in a January survey. "Police chiefs have been saying that they see an increase in opportunistic property crimes that people commit to get quick cash, like stealing iPods and GPS devices from cars," Wexler says.

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