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Spike in assaults leads US violent crime rate to first increase since '93

A 22 percent spike in the number of aggravated and simple assaults drove the violent crime rate in the US up 17 percent in 2011. But it is still vastly lower than it was two decades ago, experts note.

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A spike in the number of assaults last year is being blamed for driving up the violent crime rate in the United States, the first year-to-year increase in nearly 20 years. However crime experts say it is too early to determine if the Justice Department data represent a significant trend in violence.

A report released Wednesday by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics shows the rate of violent crime among victims 12 or older increased 17 percent in 2011 from the previous year, a finding that stopped the historic decline since 1993.

Results from the annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) show that the number of rapes, sexual assaults, and robberies was relatively unchanged last year, but that the largest driver of violent crime in 2011 was a 22 percent increase in the number of both aggravated and simple assaults. Aggravated assault involves the willful intent to cause serious physical injury, with or without a weapon. A simple assault does not involve weapons or serious injury.

Other increases last year were in total property crime, such as burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft (11 percent), and household burglary (14 percent). The survey does not track homicides or arson.

While a double-digit jump in violent crime is significant, most criminal justice experts say that the total crime rate remains significantly lower than it was two decades ago. The survey itself notes that “crime still remains at historical low levels” and that the total rate of violent victimization dropped 72 percent since 1993.

“A 17 percent increase is a pretty small rate relatively to where we were 20 years ago. That’s important to remember,” says William Pridemore, a criminal justice professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. As for whether the increase in assaults could represent a growing trend, Mr. Pridemore says “it’s way too early for scholars to know” the reasons for the uptick and that more years representing a similar reversal would be needed.

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