Police have also been more successful at investigating crimes, with 51 per cent “cleared up” – where there is enough evidence to decide whether to bring a prosecution – compared with 49 per cent in each of the previous three years.
The figures cover the 12 months before the creation of Police Scotland, and so lay down a marker for the new force.
Overall, there were 273,053 crimes committed in 2012-13, which is 31,000 fewer than the previous year.
Homicides were down by a quarter to 91, attempted murder and serious assault fell 22 per cent to 3,643, and robbery was down 18 per cent to 1,832.
Crimes of dishonesty fell sharply, having hung around the 155,000 mark for three years, to 135,899. That included an 11 per cent fall in housebreaking, although fraud cases remained at just under 9,000 a year.
The recession has not led to the rise in thefts that many people predicted.
Jon Bannister, a lecturer in urban studies at Glasgow University specialising in crime, said: “As individuals, private citizens, public agencies and police, there has been a general improvement in security – that makes it harder for criminals.”
However, he warned against over-confidence, saying: “The recession in Scotland has not worked through to its full extent yet. The full impact of cuts to public expenditure have not yet been felt.”
Despite Scotland’s reputation for knife crime, cases of handling an offensive weapon fell by almost a third to 4,015 – less than half the 2008-9 figure.
That is a success for campaigns like No Knives, Better Lives, and is some vindication for the Scottish Government’s refusal to introduce mandatory jail sentences for being found possession of one.
Drug crimes fell by 1 per cent to 34,688.
But the figures are less impressive when grouped with other offences – lower-level crimes, such as common assault, drunkenness and breach of the peace.
Offences rose by more than 1,400 to 543,768, largely driven by a rise among motorists, although driving under the influence was down.
When combined, Scotland’s crime and offences figure of 816,821 is at its lowest since 1986, and has been falling consistently since it peaked at 1,076,661 in 2004-5.
John Lamont, Scottish Conservative chief whip, said: “For the second year in a row the number of reported offences has gone up, with an increase of almost 1,500.
“And with clear-up rates in some council areas as low as 28 per cent, it suggests our police spend too much time filling in forms and doing back-office work instead of detecting and solving crime.”
Crime has fallen across the western world, with Scotland following a much larger trend.
This is reflected in a 31 per cent fall in theft from a motor vehicle, and 19 per cent decrease in thefts of vehicles, which is partly due to the improvement in security features.
Alison McInnes MSP, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman, said: “It’s good that recorded crime is continuing to fall in Scotland, reflecting a wider trend across the UK.
“In fact, in England and Wales the figures are the lowest since records began. This is testament to the hard work of our police forces and to local communities who are improving security in their homes and communities.”
Police are confident they can continue to cut crime and improve detection rates.
Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, head of community policing for Police Scotland, said the figures were a good starting point for the new force.
“What today’s crime statistics give us is a very strong platform to build on,” she said.
“We will be doing that by building on the good relationships we have with communities and the strong foundations with community beat policing.
“And we have a national plan to continue to tackle crime effectively by bringing national resources, such as the human trafficking unit and the national rape taskforce, out to whereever they are needed.”
Chief Superintendent David O’Connor, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, also said that Police Scotland – and Stephen House, its new chief constable – has a solid foundation on which to build.
Supt O’Connor welcomed the fall in violent crime, aided in part by the highly-regarded violence reduction unit.
However, Scottish Labour warned that further improvements will be difficult if police officers are forced to fill staff roles because of job cuts.
The party’s justice spokesman, Lewis Macdonald, said: “Any drop in crime would be welcome, but it’s important to recognise that how crimes are recorded can have an impact on these numbers. The public need confidence in policing and that means seeing officers on the street, not backroom bobbies in police stations covering for staff cuts.”
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said: “We are pleased but not complacent, a 39-year low is outstanding, and in particular, a 25 per cent drop in homicide, and a 21 per cent drop in violence.”
Analysis by Sarah Brindley: There is stark reality in these figures and it leaves us with complex questions to answer
ON the face of it, the figures seem stark – a 16 per cent rise in reported rape should be a source of real worry for all of us.
The reality, however, is more complex. Rape is a crime which is widely recognised as being under-reported.
The majority of survivors who get in touch with rape crisis centres tell us that they haven’t reported to the police what has happened to them, often due to fear of not being believed or of being blamed.
The police have taken significant steps in recent years to address this and to try to make sure that anyone who has suffered a sexual crime, whether recently or in the past, has the confidence that they will be treated well and with sensitivity if they do decide to report what has happened.
It is possible that at least some of the increase in reported rape is due to a greater confidence in stepping forward and speaking to the police about sexual crime.
The past year has also seen unprecedented coverage of sexual crime, sparked by the Jimmy Savile scandal which revealed an apparent culture of impunity for abusers.
The sheer numbers of survivors coming forward seemed to break through the disbelief and scepticism which is frequently directed at survivors disclosing abuse, particularly when this abuse has been carried out by someone in the public eye.
Many support services across the UK have reported increased calls to their helplines following the publicity around Savile and other recent cases, so it may be that this has all contributed to more survivors coming forward and feeling able to speak to the police about their experiences.
It is also possible, however, that such a significant increase in reported rapes means that more rapes are taking place.
What is clear is that much more needs to be done to tackle the causes of sexual violence.
The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 redefined the crime of rape and for the first time defined consent, as “free agreement”.
It also set out circumstances where no consent can be present, for example where someone lacks the capacity to consent due to having had alcohol or other substances.
We need to do far more to ensure that the Scottish public, and particularly young people, are aware of what rape
• Sandy Brindley is national co-ordinator at Rape Crisis Scotland.