The nation's crime rate leveled off last year after nine straight years of decline, the FBI reported Monday.

The annual Uniform Report on Crime, based on data from 17,000 law enforcement agencies, confirmed that the overall crime index dropped just 0.2 percent in 2000, the smallest year-on-year decrease since 1991. The FBI said 11.6 million serious crimes were reported in 2000.

Nearly all categories of violent crime experienced a drop of less than .1 percent last year to 1.4 million.  Violent crimes include murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault and robbery.

The number of murders declined less than 0.1 percent.  Still, the total number of murders, at 15,517, is the lowest figure in 35 years.  Murders rose slightly in the nation's cities, but declined in suburban and rural areas. 

The number of reported rapes rose .9 percent in 2000, the first increase in the number of rapes since 1992.  Small cities had the highest number of rapes in the nation with 69 per 100,000 female residents.

Property crimes such as burglary and larceny showed an overall decline last year of about .3 percent.

The crime report revealed that police arrested more children between the ages of 12 and 17 for motor vehicle theft than any other age group.  The number of car thefts reported last year increased 1.2 percent over 1999 to about 1.2 million.

Cars were more likely to be stolen on a Friday or Saturday, but recovered on a Monday or Tuesday.  According to the report, the first few days after a car theft are critical to recovering the stolen vehicle.  About half of all stolen cars were recovered, the FBI said.  Most cars were recovered within the first six days of the being reported stolen.

A total of 8,152 hate crime incidents were reported to law enforcement in 2000, with racial motivation, religious bias and sexual orientation being the primary reasons cited for hate-crime related reports.

Law enforcement agencies cleared 20.5 percent of the crimes reported, with murder being cleared the most frequently, at 63.1 percent.