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Violent crime is up across the nation. The FBI reports that there have been more murders, rapes and assaults for the first time since 2001. As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, the sudden jump has a lot of experts wondering what could be behind the rise and it has many at the Justice Department on the defensive.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Every year, the FBI pulls together crime data from every police department in the country. For almost 15 years, except for one small blip in 2001, it's been good news and a time for White House and Justice Department officials to credit their crime fighting programs.

Not this year.

Ms. REGINA SCHOFIELD (Assistant Attorney General): I'd like to stress that the statistics are preliminary.

SULLIVAN: Regina Schofield, an assistant attorney general, joined two other Justice Department officials on a conference call, including Richard Hertling, from Legal Policy.

Mr. RICHARD HERTLING (Office of Legal Policy): I think, you know, these numbers are something to watch. They don't necessarily reflect a trend.

SULLIVAN: And Jeffrey Sedgwick from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Mr. JEFFREY SEDGWICK (Bureau of Justice Statistics): There's a tendency to in some sense over-interpret these numbers or overreact to them.

SULLIVAN: But violent crime didn't just go up last year. According to the numbers, it jumped 2.5 percent. That's the biggest increase since 1991, when the country was battling the crack epidemic and gangs.

Mr. JAMES ALLEN FOX (Northeastern University): It's been years since you've had a crime report as alarming as this.

SULLIVAN: Professor James Allen Fox is a criminologist at Northeastern University and studies crime rates.

Mr. FOX: Things have been quiet. No change. But now things aren't quiet anymore. In my city of Boston and many other cities, St. Louis and Philadelphia, Memphis, you're seeing large spikes in violence.

SULLIVAN: According to the report, cities with less than a quarter million people had the largest increases. Homicides alone were up 12 percent last year. That's the number that most troubles criminologists like Professor Fox.

Mr. FOX: It's hard to hide a body.

SULLIVAN: Unlike other crimes, murder rates can't be fudged by police officials downgrading crimes. According to the FBI, almost 17,000 people were murdered last year. That's five percent higher than in 2004. Fox and other criminologists speculate that there are several reasons why. Cutbacks in federal law enforcement grants, a focus on terrorism, a resurgence in gang activity nationwide and signs of increasing youth violence as children born in the 1990s become teenagers.

Mr. FOX: We knew they were coming. We knew that there were more kids in our population and we also saw that the resources to support them were shrinking.

SULLIVAN: Justice Department officials say crime fighting has been a priority of the Bush administration for the past six years and they point to millions of dollars the Justice Department has spent on anti-gang initiatives and community programs like Project Save Neighborhoods.

The report wasn't all bad. Some of the nation's largest cities, including Los Angeles and New York, continued to show a drop in violent crime. The complete report will be released this fall.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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