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TUESDAY, Aug. 4, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Violent crime rates have decreased dramatically over the past three decades, largely due to crime prevention efforts that focus on the root causes of violence, researchers say.
Murders in the United States have dropped by more than half, from a peak of 10.7 per 100,000 persons in 1980 to 5.1 per 100,000 in 2013, a new study revealed.
Aggravated assaults also have declined, from a peak of 442 per 100,000 in 1992 to 242 per 100,000 in 2012. And the percentage of assaults that result in death has been halved since the 1960s, the study reported.
Findings from the study are published in the Aug. 4 issue of JAMA.
Researchers chalk up the reduction to improved coordination between the criminal justice system, social services and public health officials.
By helping children and adults affected by violence or crime, officials are breaking the cycle that can lead victims to become victimizers, said lead author Dr. Debra Houry, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We're encouraged that we are seeing rates of severe violence decrease," Houry said. "It really speaks to the fact that violence is preventable, and we can do something about it."
However, there's still much room for improvement. Despite these decreases, every year there are more than 16,000 homicides and 1.6 million assault injuries that require treatment in emergency departments, the researchers found.
Experts also are concerned that we don't know the true extent of the violence occurring around us, due to lack of reporting.
For example, more than 12 million adults experience domestic violence annually and more than 10 million children younger than 18 years of age experience maltreatment ranging from neglect to sexual abuse, but only a small percentage of these violent incidents are reported to an official, researchers said.
"You've got a lot of questions about what is really reported, and what is really going on," said Daniel Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Violence began declining in the 1980s and 1990s as efforts shifted away from a lock-them-up mentality to an approach that emphasizes prevention, Houry said.
"Violence is really interconnected," she said. "For example, if you are a victim of child abuse, you might go on to perpetrate youth violence or partner violence. So if you can impact one type of violence through prevention, you can decrease other types of violence."
As experts have gathered evidence on tactics that work best, they have been able to refine and hone programs aimed at preventing violence, Houry and Flannery said.
They've found that the most effective violence prevention strategies include parent and family-focused programs, early childhood education, school-based programs, and therapeutic or counseling interventions, the study said.
For example, a systematic review of early childhood home visitation programs found a 39 percent reduction in episodes of child abuse, compared with families not participating in the program.
"It's not just an individual person issue, it's not just a family issue, it's not just a neighborhood issue, it's not just a policy issue," Flannery said. "It's all of these things combined. Violence is a complicated social problem. You can't just address it from one level, nor can you address it effectively from one system."
Law enforcement and courts have started working more closely with social services, child protective services and public health officials, which has helped get at the roots of violent crime, Flannery and Houry said.
Examples include the advent of drug courts and mental health courts, programs where kids exposed to violence are provided counseling, and initiatives that steer juvenile offenders away from jail and into treatment programs, they both noted.
"We have a program here that we've been tracking kids for about 10 years where they get diverted into community-based treatment, as opposed to the juvenile prisons here in Ohio," Flannery said. "We've seen a significant reduction in the prison population, but also improvement in things like trauma symptoms and substance abuse and rates of offending."
But there's one huge hole in America's approach to preventing violence, Flannery pointed out -- few efforts are focused on the role of firearms in violent crime. Even the new report provided scant information on gun-related violence.
"That's a hot topic, but yes, I think we haven't been doing research on this for a bunch of policy-related reasons," he said, adding that President Barack Obama has issued executive orders that should jump-start research into firearms violence.
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SOURCES: Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H., director, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Daniel Flannery, Ph.D., director, Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio; Aug. 4, 2015, JAMA