WASHINGTON—Criminal violence against intimate partners fell by nearly two-thirds in recent years and has reached a record low, according to preliminary government figures.
The declines were greatest for nonfatal attacks, which fell by about 65 percent from 1993 to 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Homicides among intimate partners dropped by roughly a third.
The figures are based on the annual National Crime Victimization Survey, which counts criminal abuse against spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends and former spouses, whether it's been reported to police or not. The information, collected in thousands of confidential interviews, is the most widely used instrument for charting U.S. crime trends.
Because nonfatal attacks are hundreds of times more common than fatal ones, the overall drop in U.S. criminal abuse of intimate partners approaches two-thirds. That's the lowest abuse rate since the crime survey began in 1973.
"It's very good news," said Frank Zimring, a criminologist at Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California-Berkeley.
"There's no way to apportion the credit precisely," Zimring added, but the decline began in 1994 as states and the federal government launched major efforts against intimate abuse.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, legislatures have passed at least 660 measures aimed at curbing domestic violence since then. In 1994, the federal Violence Against Women Act authorized massive new aid from Washington for shelters, treatment, new police initiatives and research. To date, that's totaled $5.6 billion.
The effectiveness of the effort shows most clearly, analysts said, in a seemingly perverse trend: a sharp drop in the number and proportion of men killed by female partners. Thirty years ago, women and men were killed by intimates in nearly equal numbers. By 2004, however, 1,159 women were killed by intimates but only 385 men were. The imbalance persists in 2005 figures, due out next month, according to statistician Marianne Zawitz of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The disproportion in fatalities, while seemingly adverse to women, reflects a major gain, said Richard Gelles, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice: Abusive men are killed less often now because women can get free of them more easily.
"We've eliminated a good deal of defensive homicide by giving women easier access to shelters and ERs and by measures such as mandatory arrest laws" that restrain or punish abusive spouses, Gelles said.
Easier escape from abusive partners also helps explain the drop in nonlethal violence, analysts said. It's a category that includes rape and robbery but consists mainly of aggravated and simple assault. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the 1993 rate was 5.8 per 1,000 people age 12 and older. Preliminary figures for 2005 put the rate at 2.0.
Nearly all that decline was among female victims, according to Janet Lauritsen, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who's analyzed the numbers by gender. She and co-author Karen Heimer reported the disproportionate drop in a paper delivered last month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention in San Francisco.
"If the decline is the result of growing intolerance of family violence coupled with an increase in preventive services, it probably won't go up again in response to short-term changes," Lauritsen said. Historically, violence rates have fluctuated with changes in drug markets and economic conditions, she said.
Rita Smith, the executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she hadn't seen the figures on nonlethal violence but was hopeful that "all the resources that we've brought to bear have actually helped."
Smith said she worried about persistent high fatality rates among female intimates. She also expressed uncertainty about the accuracy of the victimization survey's numbers, saying that victims who fear their abusers might deny the abuse to outsiders.
The survey is based on interviews by female pollsters of a nationally representative sample of 77,200 households comprising nearly 134,000 people.
Even if criminal violence among intimates is down, it may persist at lower levels, in the form of pushes, slaps and threats, Gelles suggested.
"Most domestic violence is pretty rational behavior: People don't go beyond the point where they believe they'll pay the consequences," Gelles said.
Slaps and threats, he continued, are "something that a victim wouldn't call the police about, that wasn't noisy enough to bother the neighbors and that wouldn't be reported when an interviewer came by asking about criminal victimization."
Even these forms of lesser abuse may be dropping, one study suggests. A team of Pennsylvania State University sociologists asked large representative samples of married couples about minor domestic violence in 1980 and again in 2000 and reported a drop of at least 35 percent.
Shelter personnel and social workers whom McClatchy interviewed said, as did Smith, that they'd seen no drop in intimate violence. Rather, they said they were seeing more clients than ever. They were unsure, however, whether having more clients challenged the decline or reflected less tolerance of abuse. Many of them saw gains from tougher abuse laws, however, as did police.
"We used to walk away from domestics scratching our heads because we had no way to get the people out of the house," recalled David Niedermeier, the police chief of the Detroit suburb of Hazel Park. The obstacle, he said, was a prosecutorial standard that required a cooperative witness.
That changed in Michigan in 1994 with a new law that allowed police to testify when they found evidence of an attack, whether the victim was willing to take the stand or not. "We've had a steady decline since then," Niedermeier said.
Among other factors that experts said helped to explain the decline:
_More divorces and fewer and later marriages. Fewer intimate relationships mean fewer opportunities for intimate violence, criminologists reason.
_More working women. Independent incomes make it easier to escape abuse.
_More assertive women. In the mid-`90s, only half who reported criminal levels of abuse to victimization-survey interviewers said they'd reported it to police. These days, nearly two-thirds do.
_Declines in all kinds of violent crime in the mid-through late `90s. Intimate violence was swept along in the trend, according to analysts.
_More imprisonment of men. It took many who'd been abusive off the streets.
For more on intimate violence, go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Web site on "Intimate Partner Violence in the United States," at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/intimate/ipv.htm
Pennsylvania State University sociologists asked 2,000 married people in 2000 the same two questions about spousal abuse that they'd asked a comparable sample in 1980.
Question 1: Has there ever been a time in your marriage when one of you, during an argument, pushed, shoved, slapped or hit your spouse?
Husbands in 1980: 22 percent said "yes."
Husbands in 2000: 11 percent said "yes."
Wives in 1980: 20 percent said "yes."
Wives in 2000: 13 percent said "yes."
Question 2: Has this happened during the last three years?
Husbands in 1980: 13 percent said "yes."
Husbands in 2000: 5 percent said "yes."
Wives in 1980: 11 percent said "yes."
Wives in 2000: 7 percent said "yes."
The two groups were representative of the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, household size and region of the country.
_Source: "Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing," By Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, David R. Johnson and Stacy J. Rogers.