WASHINGTON - The violent crime rate declined by 10.4 percent last year, the largest one-year drop in the 26-year history of the government's largest crime survey, the Justice Department reported Sunday.
The property crime rate fell 8.9 percent from 1998 to 1999, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' national crime victimization survey.
The survey estimated there were 28.8 million violent and property crimes in 1999, the lowest figure since the survey was begun in 1973, when it found an estimated 44 million crimes.
The violent crime rate decline began in 1994. The decline in the overall property crime rate extends back a quarter of a century - to 1974, the statistics bureau said.
The declines were no surprise - either in the short- or long-term.
As with earlier, similar reports, President Clinton called the figures ''further proof that the Clinton-Gore administration's anti-crime strategy of more police on our streets and fewer guns in the wrong hands has helped to create the safest America in a generation.''
At Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's headquarters, spokesman Ray Sullivan said, ''It's typical for the Clinton-Gore administration to take credit for good things in America but ... much of the credit for the decline in crime has to go to governors and local officials who have passed tougher laws, longer prison sentences and lowered parole rates.'' As governor of Texas, Bush started toughening criminal and juvenile justice laws in 1994, Sullivan said.
Academics have cited a wider set of causes, including the aging of Baby Boomers past the crime-prone years, a subsiding of the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s, antigun campaigns by local police and federal gun controls, crime prevention programs aimed at young people, and a healthy economy producing jobs.
''While these numbers are heartening, there is a great deal more work to be done,'' Attorney General Janet Reno said.
The 1999 survey figures confirmed preliminary FBI figures for 1999 released in May. The FBI data showed the total of seven major violent and property crimes reported to police dropped for an eighth consecutive year in 1999, down 7 percent from the year before.
The statistics bureau's survey is the government's broadest measure of crime because it is based on regular interviews throughout the nation with more than 77,000 people over age 11. Thus it collects data not only on crimes reported to police but also on the larger number that go unreported.
The FBI data is based on reports made to 17,000 police agencies around the country.
Last year, 44 percent of violent crimes were reported to police, and only 34 percent of property crimes, the statistics bureau found. The most frequently reported crime in the survey was motor vehicle theft; the least reported was personal theft.
Murder, by far the least frequent but best reported of major crimes, shows up only in the FBI reports, because the statistics bureau records only crimes reported firsthand by victims it interviews.
The survey estimated that last year there were 32.8 violent crimes for every 1,000 Americans over age 11, down from 36.6 in 1998. The largest previous one-year drop from was from 10.04 percent from 1994 to 1995, when victimizations declined from 51.8 to 46.6 per 1,000.
Property crimes were estimated to have declined from 217.4 per 1,000 people in 1998 to 198.0 in 1999.
The survey found that overall, 54 percent of violent crime victims knew their assailant in 1999.
Almost 7 out of 10 rape or sexual assault victims could identify the offender as an acquaintance, friend, relative or intimate. At the opposite end of the scale, just under half the victims of aggravated assault and only one-third of the robbery victims knew their assailant.