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updated 9/13/2010 4:27:56 PM ET 2010-09-13T20:27:56

Violent crime is down in the United States for the third straight year. Property crime for the seventh. But why?

Experts are hard-pressed to come up with an explanation.

Violent crimes reported to police dropped 5.3 percent last year, the FBI said Monday, and reported property crimes fell 4.6 percent.

So explain this: Police budgets have been shrinking. Not only that, typically crime rates head up when the economy heads down.

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The trend is "one of these welcome puzzles," says Richard Rosenfeld, president of the American Society of Criminology. "This is forcing us to think more seriously under what conditions economic activity influences crime."

There are no neat answers. Among the theories: As overall economic activity slows, more people who otherwise would be at work are unemployed and at home, and when they do travel they are not as likely to carry items of value, so burglaries and street robberies decline.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the economy went south crime rates went up. Inflation was high then, low now. Is that the difference? For the experts, it's back to the drawing board.

All of the violent crime categories decreased from 2008, as did all property crime categories.

Murder fell by 7.3 percent, robbery by 8 percent, aggravated assault by 4.2 percent and rape by 2.6 percent.

Motor vehicle theft was down by 17.1 percent, larceny by 4 percent and burglary by 1.3 percent.

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The FBI said victims of property crime aside from arson lost an estimated $15.2 billion during 2009.

Attorney General Eric Holder said that smarter policing practices and investments in law enforcement play a significant role in reducing violent and property crime. He said the Obama administration has provided an additional $519 million in Byrne Justice Assistance Grants to support state and local criminal justice partners.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said that while the falling crime rate is encouraging, the economy "could come back to haunt us" because of a nearly 10 percent drop per capita in police budgets in the past few years.

"There is a connection between the economy and crime rates, but it's not that when the economy is bad, people go out and commit crime," said Fox. "When the economy is bad, there are budget cuts. Less is spent on youth crime prevention and crime control on the street."

Data for the FBI's annual crime report come from 17,985 governmental units and universities and colleges representing over 96 percent of the nation's population.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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