WASHINGTON — Violent crimes unexpectedly jumped 18 percent last year, the first rise in nearly 20 years, and property crimes rose for first time in a decade. But academic experts said the new government data fall short of signaling a reversal of the long decline in crime.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported Wednesday that the increase in the number of violent crimes was the result of an upward swing in simple assaults, which rose 22 percent, from 4 million in 2010 to 5 million last year. The incidence of rape, sexual assault and robbery remained largely unchanged, as did serious violent crime involving weapons or injury.
Property crimes were up 11 percent in 2011, from 15.4 million in 2010 to 17 million, according to the bureau’s annual national crime victimization survey. Household burglaries rose 14 percent, from 3.2 million to 3.6 million. The number of thefts jumped by 10 percent, from 11.6 million to 12.8 million.
The statistics bureau said the percentage increases last year were so large primarily because the 2011 crime totals were compared to historically low levels of crime in 2010. Violent crime has fallen by 65 percent since 1993, from 16.8 million to 5.8 million last year.
“2011 may be worse than 2010, but it was also the second-best in recent history,” said Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox.
“These simple assaults are so low-level in severity that they are not even included in the FBI counts of serious crime,” Fox said. FBI crime data only counts aggravated assaults.
The growth in violent crime experienced by whites, Hispanics, younger people and men accounted for the majority of the increase.
Chris Melde, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s school of criminal justice, said: “you can have percentage changes that seem quite large but unless you put them in a longer-term perspective you can sometimes misinterpret the overall seriousness of the problem. I would caution against forecasting future crime trends based on a one-year fluctuation.”
The slowing of declines in the second half of last year was seen by some academic experts as a sign that the years of falling crime levels might be nearing an end.