Crime and Violence in Rural Communities

Joseph F. Donnermeyer, Director
National Rural Crime Prevention Center
College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio


One of the least understood topics in the fields of criminology and criminal justice today is that of rural crime. The reasons are simple. First, research on rural crime remains sparse. Scholars and researchers have spent most of their efforts trying to understand urban patterns of crime. Second, popularized images of rural and urban areas include stereotypes that contain elements of the truth, yet represent gross exaggerations of reality. The image of rural America today still suggests that small towns, farming communities, and the open country are "crime free." This perception is not accurate; yet, relative to the problems of some large urban communities, rural areas do look like havens of safety.

The problem in assessing rural crime is that different people look at the same facts and reach very different conclusions. According to a variety of national and state-level databases reviewed here, crime levels in rural areas in every region of the country are almost always well below the crime rates of cities. However, looking at rural crime rates over time offers a different view - suggesting that while rural areas today have less crime than their urban counterparts, they also have more crime than they did in the past, and their crime problems are serious.

In this paper, we will explore the realities of rural crime. The overarching theme of this paper can best be summarized by the words of a farmer from Northeast Ohio: "We are on the same train as city people, but we're in the caboose." And he is exactly right. The social forces that shape the character of rural and urban communities are largely the same. There are only two major differences. The first is associated with scale. Informal social relationships - what sociologists refer to as primary group relationships - remain relatively more important for influencing the behavior of individuals who live in rural communities. This influence sometimes can serve as a buffer that reduces the impact of societal trends on problem behaviors, but it also can mask recognition that problems exist. The second major difference is that the economic, social, and cultural forces associated with rising levels of crime, violence, delinquency, and gangs appear first in urban areas and then spread to the hinterlands. Rural communities often lag behind the cities on crime and other social problems. As a result, policymakers often have left rural communities out of resource allocation decisions, because when those decisions were being made, the problems were predominantly urban.

"One Society, Many Faces"

The first book to focus exclusively on rural crime in nearly 50 years, Rural Crime: Integrating Research and Prevention, was published in 1982 (Carter et al., 1982). The opening chapter to this book contains a section called "One Society: Many Faces" (Sagarin et al., 1982). This phrase calls attention not only to the great diversity of rural communities, but also to the social and economic dynamics that continually change the character of rural American society.

With this phrase in mind, the first step in exploring rural crime is to recognize that one standard definition of rural will not suffice. Therefore, this paper will review information from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), the National Crime Survey (NCS), and a variety of more localized studies of rural crime. In each of these sources, what is meant by the term rural will vary. When this paper cites a study, it will describe the author or authors' definition of rural or the place where the research was conducted.

The second step is to remember that rural areas are incredibly diverse - from the coalfields of Appalachia, to the farmland of Iowa, to the fishing villages of Louisiana, to the cattle ranches of Colorado, to the small towns of Illinois and Ohio. Just as most law enforcement agencies are small (as measured by number of personnel), so too are most communities and most prevention and treatment programs. Each community can exhibit a unique crime profile that is difficult to describe with national-level statistics and information.

Not only is the nature of crime in American society changing, but the ways in which crime problems are addressed also are changing. The 1960s, a time when crime rates were increasing rapidly, was marked by an increasing estrangement between the police and citizens. In response, the early 1970s saw an increase in the development of a large variety of crime prevention programs, such as maintaining neighborhood (i.e., block or community) watch programs, providing victim assistance, and placing a renewed value on foot patrols. By the early 1980s, the concept of community-based policing had emerged, and it continues to provide the philosophical underpinning for basic functional changes in the way police agencies operate (Moore & Trojanowicz, 1988; Kelling & Bratton, 1993).

Community-based policing emphasizes that the operating philosophy of law enforcement is to work cooperatively with a wide range of community groups and institutions to prevent crime and reduce citizens' fear of crime. Community-based policing emphasizes that the traditional police functions of enforcement and apprehension actually can improve as citizens learn once again to trust and cooperate with the police. The police learn to be more responsive to the demands of citizens and to follow a service-based philosophy of keeping the customer happy. Slowly, but inexorably, this philosophy is transforming police agencies across the country.

Rural Crime: Historical Anecdotes

Erikson's (1966) study of the Puritan Colony of Massachusetts Bay in the latter half of the 17th century found a considerable level of crime in a community of only a few thousand persons founded on strong religious norms. One of the most interesting points of Erikson's work is his observation that crime (assault, arson, fighting and brawling, theft, pickpocketing, robbery, con and fraud, and even murder) began to increase as the community became an important international trade center. The population became more transient and the community began to urbanize and become a city. The lesson to be learned from this study is that these same processes - population mobility, urbanization, interdependence - identify the same social and economic trends that help us understand crime and violence in rural communities today.

The latter half of the 19th century witnessed the rapid settlement of the continental United States west of the Mississippi. This period is replete with the romantic images of cowboy life and lore. It was also a time of cattle rustling, stagecoach and train robberies, and the American tradition of settling disputes with a gun (Coates, 1930; Lane, 1976). Again, this period was a time of rapid population growth and population mobility. Land speculation, gold rushes, and the building of the railroads created a "lawless" West, in contrast to the safer environs of the established cities of the East.

Soon, however, the newly settled towns stabilized and the individualism of frontier days gave way to a post-frontier conservatism (Harvie & Jobes, undated). The image of "crime-free" rural areas was born and grew as the centers of crime shifted to the cities located in the East, along the Great Lakes, and on the waterways of the Mississippi River system, which themselves were experiencing rapid population growth and population mobility as new waves of immigrants came to this country. By 1910, suburbanization - that is, movement away from the cities to the fringes of urban areas in order to live in a safer and cleaner environment around cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia - was well underway. Vice and prostitution had long been a feature of America's cities, even from their earliest days, and Irish gangs already had emerged in New York City before the Civil War. By 1900, urban gangs in cities of the East, Midwest, and West Coast were as diverse as these cities' populations (Inciardi, 1978).

Popularized images of rural crime through the first half of the 20th century included such phenomena as gangsters (e.g., Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger), the lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan of the South, moonshiners and ridge runners hiding from the "Feds," labor disputes (i.e., strikes by mine workers), and the violence of so-called "backward" and Southern people featured in the novels of William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and others. Yet, these phenomena were seen as aberrations that were not representative of rural society. By this period, statistics from the UCR and research by various criminologists were stating with certainty that rural crime was minor compared to urban crime. For example, the renowned criminologist Marshall Clinard (1944, p. 38) noted that incarcerated persons from farm and rural areas "did not exhibit the characteristics of a definite criminal social type," and they did not associate with delinquent or criminal gangs. Twenty years later, sociologists examining the attitudes and behavior of rural youth stressed the theme of "The Myth of a Rebellious Adolescent Subculture" (Bealer et al., 1965). The crime-free image continued.

The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act was passed in 1968, after President Johnson declared that massive funding programs were needed to strengthen local law enforcement and criminal justice in order to "reverse the trend toward lawlessness" in cities (Carter, 1982). Yet, it was somehow assumed that rural areas would remain immune to the problem and that rural areas experiencing rapidly growing and serious levels of crime could be understood by such nebulous but academic-sounding phrases as "urban spillover," "urban contamination," and "urban export." Few scholars suggested that rural crime could best be understood by factors endogenous to rural areas. Exceptions included the early research of Hartung (1965), Feldhusen et al. (1965), Polk (1969), Gibbons (1972), Phillips (1976a, 1976b), and Fisher (1980). Each emphasized that although rural offenders commit less serious crimes than urban offenders and rural crime rates are lower than urban crime rates, neither comparison justifies the conclusion that rural areas are crime-free or that problems of safety and security in rural communities should be ignored.

Certainly, social scientists, the law enforcement community, school officials, politicians, journalists, and citizens did not anticipate that the image of crime-free rural areas would be shattered so dramatically by recent media stories of violence, drug use, and the emergence of gangs.

Crime and Violence in Contemporary Rural Society

Trends in Crime: Uniform Crime Reports

One of the most important sources of national data on rural crime comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports. Published annually since 1933, the UCR includes seven "Index Crimes," which comprise the four violent offenses of murder and nonnegligent homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, and the three property offenses of burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. The Crime Index contains the numbers of crimes from the records of law enforcement agencies for each of these seven crime types, divided by the population of the area. Hence, the Crime Index lists "crimes known to the police" - that is, events reported by citizens, victims, and law enforcement officers and recorded and counted by the police agency as a crime. The UCR uses these seven crimes as a kind of barometer of crime trends, even though it does not count other criminal events that are perceived by the general public to be serious, including vandalism, driving under the influence, drug arrests, and others.

The UCR reports this information for two categories of urban areas and one category of rural areas. The urban categories are metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and incorporated places in non-MSA counties, referred to in the UCR as "other cities." Rural areas are defined as unincorporated areas of non-MSA counties. In tables prepared for this paper, the two urban categories are combined.

The Crime Index is expressed on a per capita basis of 100,000 persons. In 1959, the Crime Index for rural areas stood at 397, which means that for every 100,000 rural persons, there were 397 crimes recorded by law enforcement agencies with rural jurisdictions (see Figure 1). The Crime Index rate grew steadily through the 1960s and 1970s (partly due to a change in the way larceny crimes were counted, which inflates the size of the increase). The rates peaked in 1979 at 2,168 and declined to 1,774 per 100,000 persons in 1985. Since then, the rate has again risen (to 2,105 in 1991) and may soon reach a new historical high. Overall, from 1959 to 1991, the rural crime rate rose 430 percent. From 1985 to 1991, it increased 18.5 percent.

Figure 1. Crimes known to the police, rural areas, 1959-1991 (Uniform Crime Reports, FBI) (per 100,000 persons).

Table 1 shows the rate of increase/decrease of crime since 1979. Crime rates have risen more in urban areas (+6.0%) than they have in rural areas (-2.8%). However, from 1988 to 1991, rural rates have gone up 8.6 percent, compared to only 3.6 percent for urban areas.

TABLE 1. Percent Change in Offense Rates For Urban and Rural Areas, 1979-1991 (Uniform Crime Reports, FBI)

AREA     1979-     1982-     1985-     1988-     1979-     1982-

         1982      1985      1988      1991      1991      1991

Urban    +0.5%     -6.3%     +8.6%     +3.6%     +6.0%     +5.4%

Rural    -4.8%    -12.6%     +7.5%     +8.6%     -2.8%     +2.0%

Urban crime rates, according to the UCR Crime Index, remain well above rural rates (see Table 2). In 1991, for example, the urban crime rate was 6,492.7 per 100,000 persons (violent crime - 843.0; property crime - 5,649.7). This rate is three times higher than the rural crime rate. Violent crime rates alone in urban areas are almost four times higher than in rural areas. Overall, in both rural and urban areas, the three property offenses of burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft make up about 85-90 percent of all crimes in the UCR Index.

TABLE 2. Violent and Property Crime Offense Rates Per 100,000 Persons (Crimes Known to the Police) for Urban and Rural Areas, 1985-1991 (FBI Uniform Crime Reports)

AREA                               YEAR

                    1985      1986      1987      1988


Violent Crime      620.4     689.9     679.7     711.0

Percent of Total    10.8      11.3      11.1      12.3

Annual % Change    --        +11.2      -1.5      +4.6

Property Crime   5,150.3   5,440.0   5,462.6   5,554.0

Percent of Total    89.2      88.7      89.9      87.7

Annual % Change     --         5.6      +0.4      +1.7


Violent Crime      167.9     175.3     177.7     179.7

Percent of Total     9.3       9.5       9.4       9.3

Annual % Change      --       +4.4      +1.4      +1.1

Property Crime   1,635.5   1,678.3   1,772.8   1,758.6

Percent of Total    90.7      90.5      90.6      90.7

Annual % Change     ---       +2.6      +5.6      -0.9

TABLE 2 (cont'd)

AREA                              YEAR

                    1989      1990      1991    (1985-1991)


Violent Crime      738.3     840.9     843.0

Percent of Total    11.6      13.1      13.0

Annual % Change    +10.2     +13.9      +0.2    (+35.9)

Property Crime   5,601.3   5,602.4   5,649.7

Percent of Total    89.4      86.9      87.0

Annual % Change     +0.9     +0.02      +0.8    (+9.7)


Violent Crime      188.7     206.7     217.2

Percent of Total     9.6      10.2      10.3

Annual % Change     +5.0      +9.5      +5.1   (+29.4)

Property Crime   1,785.1   1,815.4   1,887.7

Percent of Total    90.4      89.8      89.7

Annual % Change     +1.5      +0.2      +3.9   (+15.4)

The reader who conducts a cursory examination of Table 2 might be led to believe that there is no need to be concerned about rural crime, at least from the point of view of cross-sectional comparisons. However, several observations need to be made about Table 2, based on a closer reading of the statistics. The first is that in 1966, during a time when Congress declared "war on crime," the UCR urban crime rate was 2,068 per 100,000 persons. The UCR crime rate in 1991 for rural areas has now exceeded that 1966 amount for urban areas and appears on its way to even higher levels. In other words, urban crime in 1966, when seen from today's vantage point and compared to current levels of urban crime, would be regarded as a moderate and even minor problem and would be cited as evidence that American society contains moral values and law-abiding citizens. It is not that rural crime is a minor problem, it is simply that rural crime rates have not attained the "big league" levels found in American cities today.

Second, the proportion of violent crime in the total Crime Index in rural areas has gone up during the past three reporting years, and from 1990 to 1991 rural violent crime increased 5.1 percent (compared to only 0.2 percent in urban areas). Violent crime is universally perceived as more serious than property crime.

Third, the UCR Crime Index is not the total crime picture. Drug abuse violations, vandalism, weapons carrying, simple assault, and many other crimes are not reported on a per capita basis in the UCR. Each of these crimes is considered serious and provokes fear and feelings of insecurity among citizens. As we know, these crimes, plus the seven offenses in the Crime Index, are the crimes that influence citizens' reactions to crime and provoke debates among community leaders - both rural and urban - about the efficacy of various responses to the problem.

Table 3 provides a summary of rural and urban crime rates at the regional level in the United States. Within each region, rural rates for violence and property crime offenses are below respective urban rates. However, various regions of the U.S. display sizeable differences in per capita crime. For example, the New England and Middle Atlantic states show the lowest rural and urban crime rates, followed closely by the East North Central and West North Central states. The highest rates of violent crime in rural areas are in the South Atlantic states, while the lowest rates are in the West North Central states. The highest rural property crime rates are in the Pacific states region, while the lowest rates may be found in the East South Central region.

TABLE 3. Violent and Property Crime Offense Rates, Per 100,000 Persons (Crimes Known to the Police), for Urban and Rural Areas, by Region, 1985 and 1991 (Uniform Crime Reports, FBI)

               1985 Rate         1991 Rate        Percent Change


Violent Propery Violent Property Violent Property Crime Crime Crime Crime Crime Crime

New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)

Urban 431 4,273 575 4,701 +33.4 +10.0 Rural 107 1,601 116 1,888 +8.4 +17.9

Middle Atlantic (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)

Urban 690 4,145 866 4,539 +25.5 +9.5 Rural 125 1,656 158 1,838 +26.4 +11.0

East North Central (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin)

Urban 588 4,423 651 5,246 +10.7 +18.6 Rural 118 1,215 183 1,786 +55.1 +47.0

West North Central (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota)

Urban 385 4,424 576 5,239 +49.6 +18.4 Rural 70 1,215 99 1,353 +41.4 +11.4

South Atlantic (Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia)

Urban 721 5,416 965 6,462 +33.8 -19.3 Rural 229 1,751 362 2,359 +58.1 +34.7

East South Central (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee)

Urban 497 4,217 801 5,192 +61.2 +23.1 Rural 151 1,001 203 1,197 +34.4 +19.6

West South Central (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oaklahoma, Texas)

Urban 651 6,617 907 7,135 +39.3 +7.8 Rural 179 1,533 244 1,747 +36.3 +14.0

Mountain (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming)

Urban 524 4,761 608 6,304 +16.0 +32.4 Rural 252 2,329 237 2,117 +9.4 -9.1

Pacific (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington)

Urban 709 5,970 984 5,811 +38.8 -2.7 Rural 308 3,085 252 4,971 -18.2 +61.1

The violent crime rate for rural areas rose from 1985 through 1991 within each of the regions, with the exception of the Pacific states area. The largest percentage increases were in rural areas of the East North Central and South Atlantic regions. Property crime rates in rural areas also rose in all regions except the Mountain states. In general, for both rural and urban areas, property crime rates are rising more slowly than violent crime rates.

In the two regions of the Midwest (East North Central and West North Central regions), violent and property crime rates for rural areas exhibited larger increases than urban areas from 1985 through 1991 (Table 4). The largest rural-urban differential in violent offenses is for the crime of robbery. Rural areas simply have few cases of armed robbery, and the per capita rate of robbery declined for the period from 1985 through 1991. The largest increase in violent crime offenses was for aggravated assault, which increased nearly 50 percent in rural areas. Property crime rates also increased for both rural and urban areas of the Midwest. The largest percentage increases were for motor vehicle theft.

TABLE 4. Violent and Property Crime Offense Rates Per 100,000 Persons for Urban and Rural Areas, Midwestern Region, East North Central and West North Central States, 1985 and 1991 (Crimes Known to the Police, FBI Uniform Crime Reports)

Offense              1985          1991          Percent Change


Violent Crime

     Urban           545.31        732.86        +34.4

     Rural            96.06        135.35        +40.0


     Urban             8.94         10.02        +12.1

     Rural             2.61         12.91        +11.5

Forcible Rape

     Urban            37.87         49.78        +31.4

     Rural            15.32         21.41        +39.8


     Urban           200.39        267.20        +33.3

     Rural             8.75          7.65        -12.6

Aggravated Assault

     Urban           298.11        405.86        +36.1

     Rural            69.38        103.38        +49.0

Property Crime

     Urban         4,823.57      5,248.03         +8.8

     Rural         1,466.55      1,599.31         +9.1


     Urban         1,196.87      1,134.38         -5.2

     Rural         1,513.12        558.06         +8.8


     Urban         3,118.50      3,522.11        +12.9

     Rural           876.83        949.08         +8.2

Motor Vehicle Theft

     Urban           508.2         591.54        +16.4

     Rural            76.6         9 2.17        +20.3

Table 5 breaks down the seven offenses in the Crime Index for each state in the Midwest. Total Crime Index rates for rural areas ranged from a low of 954.5 per 100,000 persons in North Dakota to a high of 3,012.5 in Michigan. The highest and lowest rates of violent crime in rural areas also were in Michigan and North Dakota, respectively.

TABLE 5. Violent and Property Crime Offense Rates Per 100,000 Persons for Urban and Rural Areas, Midwestern Region, 1991 (Crimes Known to the Police, FBI Uniform Crime Reports)

Area        Crime      Violent     Murder    Forcible   Robbery  

            Index      Offenses              Rape


East North Central States


 Urban       6,568.5   1,129.5     12.2      43.3        498.0

 Rural       1,439.2      68.7      1.1       4.0          6.6 


 Urban       5,565.0     571.1      7.4       45.4       142.7 

 Rural       1,856.3     221.5      8.0       25.2        11.7


 Urban       6,577.0     877.5      3.4       46.4       122.1 

 Rural       3,012.5     273.8      1.3       12.8         2.7 


 Urban       5,558.5     631.0      7.9       58.7       246.8

 Rural       1,450.3     120.0      2.2       12.2         7.6 


 Urban       5,156.9     324.1      5.4       29.4       148.9

 Rural       1,813.8      95.8      2.4       10.2         4.0

TABLE 5 (cont'd):

Area         Aggravated  Property   Burglary  Larceny-   Motor

             Assault     Offenses             Theft      Vehicle



 Urban      576.0       5,439.1      1,177.5   3,550.9    710.7

 Rural       57.0       1,370.5        502.1     808.3     60.1


 Urban      375.6       4,993.9      1,090.5   3,357.1    546.3

 Rural      176.6       1,634.8        534.9     974.0    125.9


 Urban      204.0       5,699.5      1,202.6   3,738.2    758.7

 Rural       61.4       2,738.7      1,069.6   1,552.4    116.7


 Urban      315.8       4,927.5      1,144.5   3,220.8    562.2

 Rural       98.2       1,330.3        321.5     913.6     95.2


 Urban      140.4       4,832.8        785.3   3,523.5    524.0

 Rural       79.2       1,718.0        622.2     995.4    100.4

TABLE 5 (con't).

West North Central States

Area        Crime      Violent     Murder    Forcible   Robbery  

            Index      Offenses              Rape



 Urban      5,395.1    394.9       2.7       27.2       58.5

 Rural      1,443.3    105.7       0.7        7.2       15.7 


 Urban      6,409.1    401.1       6.9       51.5       55.0 

 Rural      1,144.2    132.2       2.8       15.0        4.1


 Urban      5,144.1    376.1       3.4       46.6       122.1

 Rural      1,930.7     78.2       1.3       12.8         2.7


 Urban      2,460.0    964.0      12.4       41.6       329.2 

 Rural      1,196.3    136.6       4.5       10.5         7.6 


 Urban      5,428.5    437.8       3.8       34.0        72.9

 Rural      1,473.1     58.5       1.8       12.2         3.7 

North Dakota

 Urban      3,874.5   93.0         1.5       26.0        12.0 

 Rural        954.5   18.3         0.4        5.1         1.3

South Dakota

 Urban      4,622.7  276.5         1.7       60.7        29.2 

 Rural      1,021.3   56.5         1.6       11.7         4.9

TABLE 5 (con't).

Area         Aggravated  Property   Burglary  Larceny-   Motor

             Assault     Offenses             Theft      Vehicle


 Urban       306.5       5,000.2    1,088.2   3,689.7    222.3

 Rural        82.1       1,337.6      290.7     987.4    59.5


 Urban       287.7       6,008.0    1,465.6   3,932.6    208.7

 Rural       110.3       1,012.0      604.5     923.0     82.5


 Urban       204.0       4,768.0      912.2   3,433.9    421.9

 Rural        61.4       1,825.5      621.5   1,099.4    131.6


 Urban       580.8       5,805.5    1,496.0   3,589.9    719.6

 Rural       114.0       1,059.7      496.7     506.6     56.4


 Urban       327.1       4,990.7      857.7   3,868.6    264.4

 Rural        40.8       1,414.6      369.5     971.3     73.8

North Dakota

 Urban        53.5       3,781.5      437.5   3,172.2    171.8

 Rural        11.5         936.2      262.2     623.4     50.2

South Dakota

 Urban       184.9       4,346.2      761.5   3,422.8    161.9

 Rural        38.3         965.1      356.8     556.3     52.0

Table 5 shows that in several cases the crime rate for a particular offense within a particular state is equal between rural and urban areas. For example, the homicide rate in rural Indiana is slightly higher than the homicide rate for urban Indiana, and there is little difference in the per capita homicide rates for urban and rural South Dakota (both are low). The burglary rate in rural Michigan is only about 11 percent lower than the burglary rate in urban Michigan. Despite these convergences, however, the portrait of crime painted by the FBI's UCR for the rural Midwest is the same as that for the nation:

  1. Per capita rates in rural areas have increased since 1985.
  2. Violent crime shows a larger percentage increase than property crime.
  3. Rural crime rates are substantially lower than urban crime rates.
  4. Rural crime rates in 1991 are at a level roughly similar to the rates experienced by urban areas about 20 to 25 years ago.

Explaining Differences in Rural Crime Rates

How does one explain regional and state differences in UCR rural crime rates? The UCR is only a barometer and does not include all crime types. Furthermore, delineating nationwide (and even statewide) rural-urban differences fails to recognize the diversity that can be found within both types of communities. Although some small towns and urban neighborhoods have epidemic levels of crime, it must also be remembered that many more locations are relatively crime free, where people are not afraid to take a casual night-time stroll around the block.

No matter how extensive the data, some questions can never be answered definitively. However, it is possible to speculate and suggest why some places have more crime than others. Historical anecdotes show that the underlying causes of crime do not change: (1) a weakening of society's institutions that define and reinforce appropriate or law-abiding behavior - in particular, the family, the school, and religion, and (2) a strengthening of groups that encourage and reinforce law-breaking behavior. Only the particulars change from one historical period to another.

During the present historical period, the following six sets of factors help us understand why some rural communities already have high crime rates or are experiencing a rapid increase in crime:

  1. Culture. Traditional rural areas, principally in the Southern and Western states, and rural areas dominated by mining and timbering historically have higher rates of violence, which are associated with the use of violence as an accepted means of resolving conflict (Nisbett, 1993).
  2. Poverty. Like many urban neighborhoods, rural areas with persistent poverty over several generations can exhibit higher levels of crime.
  3. Urbanization. Rural areas may have higher crime rates, especially property-related incidents, if they (a) are located near interstates or large cities and other urban developments, (b) are suburbanizing, (c) are the location for second or seasonal homes or other tourist developments, and (d) are the location for retired householders moving out of the city.
  4. Rapid change. Some rural areas are subject to economic and population change that is very rapid, and regardless of whether the change represents an increase or decrease in population or an increase or decrease in jobs or per capita income, rapid change can weaken local community norms that reinforce lawful behavior.
  5. Organized crime. Some rural areas are the location for organized crime activities, which may include activities ranging from farm equipment or garden tractor theft rings to drug production and drug trafficking gangs, and their presence can increase crime - especially violent crime.
  6. Urban export. The movement of urban criminals to rural areas will increase crime, but this phenomemon is relatively rare, although it is a common explanation voiced by long-time members of rural communities. The vast majority of people arrested by rural law enforcement are residents of the area.

Trends in Crime: National Victim Survey

It is probable that the rural-urban crime differences exhibited in the UCR are exaggerated to some extent. A weakness of the UCR is that the rate of crime is based on the resident population. In a highly mobile society, this approach presents problems. Most incorporated places, whether urban or suburban, large or small, are the location for factories, offices, retail establishments, medical facilities, shopping malls, restaurants, and places of entertainment. Hence, there are more rural residents who travel to urban centers for work, shopping, and various professional services than urban residents who travel to rural areas. If a UCR Index crime occurs to a rural person while in an urban location, the report of that crime is registered by the law enforcement agency for that jurisdiction. The FBI, however, does not calculate a crime rate based on a transient or commuter population, but on the permanent or resident population. It is all a matter of definition. Should rural crime be examined solely from the point of view of geographic areas, or should it include the crime experiences of rural residents, no matter where the crime may have occurred? In order to interpret these national databases, then, the reader should be aware that the UCR reports on geographical differences of law enforcement agencies, while the National Crime Survey reports on differences in the crime experiences of people who live in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

Another and more glaring weakness of the Uniform Crime Reports is that they count only crimes known to the police. Unfortunately, many crimes that rural and urban residents experience are never reported. For this reason, victimization surveys were developed in the mid-1970s. The victimization survey is a data collection procedure used to estimate the extent of crime within particular geographic areas by means of a representative sample of the population from which information about crime-related experiences within a specified time frame are gathered. Beyond the fact that the victim survey can ascertain crimes not reported to police, a second advantage is that it can ask about crimes not counted in the UCR's Crime Index. For instance, one of the first rural victimization studies was conducted by Phillips (1976a and 1976b), who found that vandalism was the most frequently occurring crime among rural residents. The frequency of vandalism was confirmed in early rural victim studies by Smith and Huff (1982) and Donnermeyer (1982) in Indiana.

The Department of Justice administers the National Crime Survey (NCS) through the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Nearly 51,000 households are interviewed every six months, and each participating household is interviewed for a three-year period and then replaced. The NCS has three major divisions of victimization experiences: (1) crimes of violence, for persons age 12 and older; (2) crimes of theft for persons age 12 and older; and (3) household crimes. Crimes of violence and crimes of theft are reported as the number of victimizations per 1,000 persons annually. Household crimes are reported as the number of victimizations per 1,000 households annually. Crimes of violence include rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. Crimes of theft include purse snatching, pocket picking, and personal larceny without direct contact (i.e., theft of personal items from any place other than the victim's home). Household crimes are defined as burglary (both at the permanent residence and while in hotels and other temporary living quarters), larceny at the place of residence, and motor vehicle theft. As the reader can ascertain, the NCS has a similar but slightly different list of crime types when compared to the UCR Index Crimes. Since one person or household can experience more than one crime of the same type within the same year, the NCS rates are not percentages (i.e., the proportion of persons or households experiencing crime).

The NCS divides the U.S. population into three groups: city, suburban, and rural residents. City is a population category that refers to those who reside in the central city of an MSA, which represents about 59 million persons who are 12 years of age and older. Suburban refers to those who live within MSA counties, but outside of the central city. These populations add up to about 87 million persons. Rural refers to the nonmetropolitan population - about 54 million persons.

Table 6 shows crime trends according to the NCS from its inception in 1973. Crimes of violence in rural areas were at their highest in 1991 (24.9 victimizations per 1,000 persons) and have varied little between 1973 and 1991. Rural rates of violence are now close among those classified in the suburban category. Those living in the city are most at risk of violent crime, with a 1991 rate of 43.7 victimizations per 1,000 persons. Although the violent crime rate is higher in the city than in the country, according to the NCS, the difference is much less pronounced than the difference indicated by the UCR. The reader is reminded that the NCS reports on crime experiences, and some violent crime (and personal crimes of theft) are more likely to occur to rural residents when they are in urban areas. However, the most important point is that both the NCS and the UCR data indicate that violent crime is now on the increase in rural and urban America.

TABLE 6: Annual Rates of Violent, Theft and Household Crime 1973-1991 (National Crime Survey)

Crime/Year          City          Suburban          Rural

Crimes of Violence (Per 1,000 Persons Age 12 or Older)

1973                44.1          31.3              22.9

1977                47.2          33.7              22.1

1981                51.6          32.8              24.4

1985                39.9          26.8              24.1

1989                38.3          27.2              22.0

1991                43.7          26.4              24.9

Crimes of Theft (Per 1,000 Persons Age 12 or Older)

1973                99.8         100.0              71.7

1977               112.9         107.2              70.9

1981               101.4          94.2              59.8

1985                83.5          71.2              51.7

1989                87.9          70.0              45.3

1991                73.9          52.4              44.4

Household Crimes (Per 1,000 Households)

1973               263.2         222.6             164.5

1977               276.8         240.8             167.7

1981               294.8         216.1             173.8

1985               226.9         156.7             139.9

1989               235.1         149.0             126.2

1991               223.4         142.7             121.2

Sources:  1.  Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of 

              Justice, Criminal Victimization in the United

              States, 1991. NCJ-13956.3.

          2.  Ronet Bachman, "Crime in Nonmetropolitan America: 

              A National Accounting of Trends, Incidence Rates,

              and Idiosyncratic Vulnerabilities."  Rural 

              Sociology 57:552.

Crimes of theft against a person also occurred at higher rates in urban than in rural areas. In all three population categories, the victimization rate hasdeclined steadily since 1977. By 1991, the rate for rural areas had fallen to 44.4 per 1,000 persons, from a high of 71.7 in 1973. Crimes of theft peaked in 1977 for both suburban and city areas and have since declined to rates of 52.4 and 73.9, respectively.

Household-level crime rates were at their highest in rural areas in 1981 and have since declined. In 1991, household crimes occurred at a rate of 121.2 incidents per 1,000 households in rural areas, 142.7 in suburban areas, and 223.4 in central cities. Declines in the personal rates of theft and in household crime rates match trends from the UCR data in the first half of the 1980s. For this period, both sets of national data indicated declines in both rural and urban crime rates. However, the UCR now notes that property crime is again on the rise, while the NCS data continue to find declining rates. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that more people who experience property crimes are reporting these incidents to the police. This difference also may be the result of the different ways in which the two sets of crime indicators are collected.

Table 7 shows the victimization rates for specific crime incidents in 1991. The NCS divides crime incidents (with the exception of pocket picking) into completed or successful incidents and attempted crimes. For example, in the central cities, there were 1.5 incidents of rape per 1,000 persons, of which one-third (0.5 per 1,000 persons) were completed and two-thirds were attempted (1.0 per 1,000 persons). Although the rape victimization rate for residents of rural areas is about one-half the city rate, the level of completed rapes is much closer (0.4 per 1,000 persons).

TABLE 7: Victimizations Rates, 1991, by City, Suburban and Rural Areas, by Type of Victimizations

                                       City     Suburban    Rural

Crimes of Violence (Per 1,000 Persons Age 12 And Over)

Rape                                   1.5      0.5          0.7

   Completed                           0.5      0.2          0.4

   Attempted                           1.0      0.3          0.4

Robbery                               11.5      3.9          1.5

   Completed                           7.4      2.7          0.9

   Attempted                           4.1      1.1          0.6

Assault                               30.7     22.0         22.7

   Aggravated                         10.8      6.5          6.5

   Completed                           4.1      2.3          2.4 

   Attempted                           6.7      4.2          4.2

Simple                                19.9     15.5         16.1

   Completed                           6.0      4.3          5.0

   Attempted                          13.9     11.2         11.1

Crimes of Theft (Per 1,000 Persons Age 12 And Over)

Purse Snatching                        1.4      0.6          0.0

   Completed                           1.1      0.4          0.0

   Attempted                           0.2      0.2          0.0

Pocket-Picking                         2.9      1.3          0.9

   Personal Larceny

    Without Contact                   70.9     59.4         43.5

   Completed                          65.4     55.3         41.7

   Attempted                           5.6      4.1          1.8

Household Crimes (Per 1,000 Households)

Burglary                              69.5     44.5         46.5

   Completed                          53.5     34.9         36.8

   Forcible Entry                     26.5     12.9         12.8

   Unlawful Entry                     27.0     22.0         24.0

   Attempted Forcible Entry           16.0      9.6          9.7

Larceny                              117.4     77.7         68.6

   Completed                         109.5     73.0         65.7

   Attempted                           7.9      4.8          2.9

Motor Vehicle Theft                   36.5     20.5          6.2

   Completed                          23.0     12.9          4.7

   Attempted                          13.5      7.6          1.4

The low level of robbery in rural areas reflected in the UCR is confirmed in the NCS data. The rate of 1.5 per 1,000 persons is more than seven times lower than the city rate. The suburban rate of robbery is also very low. Rural-urban differences in assault are less pronounced, especially for simple assault (attack without a weapon resulting in only minor injuries).

The number of victimizations among rural residents for the crime of pocket picking is so low that the NCS reports a rate of 0.0. In cities, the rate is only 1.4 per 1,000 persons. Pocket picking also is experienced at a very low rate among suburban persons (0.9 per 1,000 persons). The dominant offense within crimes of theft is personal larceny without contact, which refers to the theft or attempted theft of property from a place other than the victim's home, such as a place of work, or personal property taken from a motor vehicle when it is parked at a shopping mall. There is no direct physical contact between the offender and the victim. The personal larceny without contact rate for rural residents was 43.5 per 1,000 persons in 1991, and most of these crimes were completed.

Among household-level offenses, the burglary rate per 1,000 rural households was 46.5, which was slightly higher than the rate experienced by suburban households, but below the rate for city households. The pattern of burglary shows one significant rural-urban difference. The proportion of forcible entry break-ins is much higher among city households. Among rural households, nearly two-thirds of the completed burglaries did not involve force. Instead, the burglar entered the house (or other structures on the property) through an unlocked door or window. This information suggests that simple prevention measures, such as adequate locks (and using the locks) could substantially reduce burglary rates in rural areas.

Similar to the results from the UCR data, larceny (both personal and household-level) is the most frequently occurring crime. Rates for rural and suburban residents were similar in 1991, but both experienced levels that were well below the rate for city dwellers. Motor vehicle theft rates were much lower in rural areas - another rural-urban difference in the NCS data that agrees with the UCR data.

One of the disadvantages of the NCS is that city, suburban, and rural breakdowns within each region are not available. Other information is available, however, including victimization rates for various demographic and social characteristics of persons and households in nonmetropolitan areas. These rates are summarized below.

With increasing age, victimization rates decline, regardless of location in cities, suburbs, or rural areas. Less educated persons have higher rates of violence, but lower rates of theft and household-level crimes. Again, the patterns are the same for both rural ("nonmetro") and urban ("central cities") areas. Likewise, lower-income persons exhibit higher rates of violence in rural, suburban ("other metro areas"), and city areas. The highest rates of personal theft were found in the highest income category. Household crime rates declined by income in rural areas; however, this trend did not hold among suburban and city residents. Persons who have never been married and persons who are divorced or separated exhibit the highest rates of violence, theft, and household victimizations, regardless of location (see Table 8).

Table 8: Annual Violent, Theft, and Household Crime Rates by Location in the United States and Demographic Characteristics, 1987-1990*

                                       Crimes of Violence

Demographic                      Central    Other      Nonmetro

characteristic                   cities     metro   


Total rate                       40.6       26.0       21.1


   12-19                         86.2       63.0       47.9

   20-24                         72.7       52.9       51.1

   25-34                         47.6       29.3       26.4

   35-49                         29.2       18.7       14.0

   50-64                         14.4        7.2        6.2

   65 and over                    7.8        3.0        2.4


   Less than 9 years             44.5       33.3       21.3

   1-3 years high school         58.9       41.3       28.9

   4 years high school           36.4       22.1       18.6

   1-3 years college             45.1       26.5       23.6

   4 or more years college       26.5       17.4       13.4


   Less than $9,999              65.0       40.8       34.6

   $10,000-24,999                41.9       28.3       19.9

   $25,000-49,999                30.5       23.3       15.4

   $50,000 or more               23.8       20.9       12.0

Marital status

   Never married                 68.3       53.0       45.7

   Married                       19.8       12.9        9.2

   Widowed                       12.5        5.6        5.3

   Divorced or separated         58.9       44.2       46.5


   White                         39.1       25.6       31.3

   Black                         48.6       31.4       22.2

   Other                         26.6       25.1       42.9


   Male                          50.2       33.8       25.0

   Female                        32.2       18.5       17.6

TABLE 8 (con't):

                                     Crimes of Theft

Demographic                      Central    Other      Nonmetro

characteristic                   cities     metro


Total rate                       86.0        70.1      45.1


   12-19                        128.2       115.5      93.1

   20-24                        142.2       114.0      75.0

   25-34                        101.8        83.6      46.1

   35-49                         80.5        65.8      41.4

   50-64                         50.4        39.6      24.9

   65 and over                   24.3        19.4      12.4


   Less than 9 years             60.0        61.9      42.3

   1-3 years high school         75.8        77.6      53.3

   4 years high school           75.4        59.0      37.2

   1-3 years college            111.0        82.9      56.0

   4 or more years college      110.3        79.2      50.9


   Less than $9,999              88.3        64.6      46.9

   $10,000-24,999                81.1        65.9      41.1

   $25,000-49,999                92.2        69.4      47.3

   $50,000 or more               94.2        80.0      60.2

Marital status

   Never married                122.1       110.8      80.5

   Married                       62.4        53.0      31.8

   Widowed                       34.9        26.5      17.5 

   Divorced or separated        104.7        89.5      56.9


   White                         90.8        69.8      68.6

   Black                         72.8        76.0      40.6

   Other                         66.1        67.0      60.0


   Male                          92.1        73.0      48.4

   Female                        80.8        67.3      42.0

TABLE 8 (con't):

                                     Household Crimes

Demographic                      Central    Other      Nonmetro

characteristic                   cities     metro


Total rate                       232.1      152.7      120.4


   12-19                         410.5      382.4      356.0

   20-24                         336.8      291.8      230.9

   25-34                         283.5      189.7      154.9

   35-49                         261.9      176.1      135.4

   50-64                         193.5      121.4       92.3

   65 and over                   115.2       60.3       67.3


   Less than 9 years             168.9      110.3       91.0

   1-3 years high school         258.6      175.1      129.4

   4 years high school           238.6      155.0      127.0

   1-3 years college             270.9      181.9      140.6

   4 or more years college       212.9      134.1      105.6


   Less than $9,999              232.2      177.1      149.4

   $10,000-24,999                236.8      156.3      114.1

   $25,000-49,999                237.3      147.5      107.3

   $50,000 or more               231.3      150.1      106.9

Marital status

   Never married                 250.2      193.9      195.7

   Married                       234.9      144.9      105.9

   Widowed                       142.6       72.9       77.4

   Divorced or separated         267.7      212.6      178.6


   White                         224.7      148.2      116.5

   Black                         266.5      217.1      150.0

   Other                         186.2      157.7      206.8


   Male                          239.9      150.2      115.2

   Female                        221.3      158.5      132.5

*Victimization rates per 1,000 households or persons age

12 and over.  Excludes data on persons whose income and education

level, race, or marital status was not ascertained.

Source:  Bachman, R..  Crime in nonmetropolitan America: 

A national accounting of trends, incidence rates, and

idiosyncratic vulnerabilities.  Rural Sociology, 57, 552.

For crimes of violence, central city and nonmetropolitan residents follow opposite patterns. Blacks have higher violence victimization rates in central cities, but whites have higher rates in rural locations. For both blacks and whites, the highest rates of household-level crime victimization occur in metropolitan areas ("central cities" and "other metro areas"). In nonmetropolitan areas, individuals classified as "other" have the highest victimization rates. Female-headed households in nonmetropolitan and suburban areas had lower rates of crime than male-headed households for violence and theft. Female-headed households in central cities had only slightly higher victimization rates than male-headed households for violent crime.

Studies of indirect victimization experienced by rural residents is nearly nonexistent. Indirect victimization may be defined as knowledge of recent crimes occurring to friends, acquaintances, neighbors, relatives, and other family members. Indirect victimization should be distinguished from the impact of media stories on crime incidents. Indirect victimization refers only to awareness of crimes experienced by people one knows. A study by Donnermeyer and Kreps (1986) of one rural county in north central Ohio noted that 36 percent of the respondents were aware of incidents of vandalism occurring within the past year to people they knew. Thirty-two percent knew of burglary incidents, 31 percent knew of incidents of theft or larceny, and 18 percent were aware of violent crime incidents. Altogether, slightly more than 60 percent of the sample could recall crime incidents experienced by people they knew. Lee (1982) found that nearly two-thirds of his sample of rural and urban residents in the state of Washington knew of friends who had recently been the victims of crime. Residents of small towns exhibited the lowest amount of indirect victimization, while farm, open-country, and city (places of 100,000 and more) people showed the highest amount of indirect victimization.

Farm and Ranch Crime

Several specialized victimization surveys of farms and ranches have been conducted in Arkansas (Voth & Farmer, 1988), Montana (Saltiel et al., 1992), Ohio (Donnermeyer, 1987) and Tennessee (Cleland, 1990). None of these studies calculated victimization rates in the same fashion as the NCS. Instead, they examined the percentage of operations that experienced various types of crime within a one-year time period. The results indicate that vandalism, household-level larceny (mostly in the form of stolen farm supplies and tools and, on occasion, farm machinery and livestock), and burglary are the most frequently occurring agricultural crimes. Each year, between one-third and one-half of agricultural operations experience a crime.

It is rare to find incidents of violent crime occurring among the farm population, and most of these incidents take place at off-farm/ranch sites. In addition, personal crimes of theft are relatively rare on agricultural operations, but can occur to the farm and ranch population at other locations. The surprising statistic from the farm/ranch victimization studies is that the percentage of agricultural operations that annually experience one or more burglaries appears to be higher than the percentage for central city households. In particular, the number of break-ins and illegal entry into barns and other buildings is high; however, farm/ranch homes are burglarized infrequently. The difference in the vulnerability of farm/ranch buildings versus the homestead is due to the two simple facts that the home is the base of operations (someone is normally there) and that many farm/ranch buildings are in remote locations and cannot easily be kept under surveillance during the normal routine of chores (especially during the busy times of planting, harvesting, and herding).

Fear of Crime

Two advantages of victimization surveys were mentioned above. A third advantage of these surveys over UCR data is the ability of researchers to examine the reactions of victims (and nonvictims) to crime. As Gomme (1988) emphasizes, fear of crime is as important and may be even more important in determining quality of life than the actual occurrence of crime. Most fear of crime studies use as an indicator a question that asks the degree to which residents of an area are unwilling to walk alone at night in areas near their homes.

Research conducted in the 1970s suggests that fear of crime was lower for rural versus urban residents. However, research conducted during the 1980s notes a rural-urban convergence in fear levels (Weisheit et al., 1993). For example, annual public opinion polls about crime in South Carolina from 1980 to 1985 found that rural residents were slightly more concerned about their safety than respondents from suburban areas and cities (Stephens, 1985). Two statewide studies conducted in 1974 by Phillips (1976a) and in 1980 by Donnermeyer et al. (1983) of open-country residents in Ohio illustrate how perceptions of crime among rural residents have changed. In 1974, 36 percent of respondents under 60 years of age and 44 percent over 60 felt that it was not safe for a woman to walk alone at night in their neighborhood. By 1980, this perception had increased to 45 and 63 percent, respectively.

In 1974, 7 percent of respondents 60 years of age and younger and 14 percent of those over 60 felt that it was not safe for a woman to be at home alone in their neighborhood. In 1980, 14 percent of respondents under age 60 and 22 percent of respondents over age 60 believed that their neighborhood was not safe for a woman alone in her own home. The reader should note that the elderly are the least victimized but the most fearful of all age groups, regardless of location. In this study, fear of crime among younger persons in 1980 matched almost exactly the proportion of elderly who were fearful in 1974. Hence, there is a lag in perceptions by age, much as there is a lag in rural crime rates relative to urban rates.

One phenomenon about rural crime that illustrates the relationship between population mobility, urbanism, and fear of crime was found in research by Donnermeyer and Phillips (1982 and 1984) on reactions by vandalism victims. Surprisingly, victims of vandalism demonstrated higher levels of fear than the victims of all other property crimes and many violent crimes (their survey did not include rape victimization and there were few reported cases of aggravated assault). It appears that vandalism represents a form of "perceived incivility" - that is, a random, capricious act of violence against property. Victims cannot make sense out of it and therefore have a more negative perception of vandalism.

Fear of crime among rural residents shows that subjective perceptions and objective conditions are at variance with each other. The differences between fear levels of rural and urban residents is minor compared to the differences in the actual rates of rural and urban crime (based on both the UCR and the NCS). Fear of crime has never been correlated with real levels of crime. This juxtaposition of perceptions and reality is not the exception - it is the norm. It isimportant to remember this point as rural law enforcement moves toward a community policing model, because both citizens' perceptions and actual crime must be addressed.

Crime in Rural Schools

In 1989, a special supplement to the NCS measurement instruments contained questions on the victimization experiences of persons 12 to 19 years of age at the school they attend. They also were asked their opinions about crime, the availability of drugs, and awareness of gangs (Bastian & Taylor, 1991).

Among the students living in rural areas, 7 percent indicated that they had been the victim of a property crime and 1 percent indicated that they had been the victim of a violent crime. In comparison, 8 percent of central city students had experienced a property crime and 2 percent had experienced a violent crime. The property and violent crime experiences for suburban students was 7 percent and 2 percent, respectively. As these results indicate, there was only a narrow difference in crime experiences among students by rural and urban location. This finding contrasts starkly to the more dramatic rural-urban differences found in both the UCR and regular NCS data.

Seventy-one percent of the rural students indicated that drugs were available at their school, compared to 66 percent of students from the city and 67 percent from suburban locations. Rural students were more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to have attended drug education classes (44 percent versus 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively).

One large rural-urban difference is the reported presence of gangs. Only 8 percent of the students living in rural areas indicated that gangs were active in their school, compared to 14 percent of suburban students and 25 percent of city students. Despite this difference, 6 percent of the rural students reported avoiding places at school out of fear of being attacked. This figure was slightly higher than the 5 percent figure for suburban students, but lower than the 8 percent of city students who avoided places at school. In addition, 20 percent of the rural students indicated that they were fearful of being attacked at school (versus 20 percent of suburban students and 24 percent of students from cities). Thirteen percent of rural students feared being attacked while going to and from school - slightly higher than the rate for suburban youth (12%), but lower than that of their city counterparts (19%).

These results indicate that rural youth are experiencing crime at a level and in ways similar to youth from the cities and suburbs. If these findings are accurate, rural crime takes on another new face: crime experiences and feelings of vulnerability and risk exhibit considerable differences by age. Simply put, rural youth have different experiences with crime than their parents.


Virtually no information is available on levels of spouse, child, and elder abuse in rural areas. The nature of abuse, which involves sexual, physical, and psychological abuse often between family members or in relationships of trust between the victim and the offender, makes abuse impossible to measure in victimization surveys. Furthermore, victims often are reluctant to report cases of abuse. Nationally, child abuse cases are estimated at about 2.4 million annually. There are no rural-urban differences in physical forms of child abuse, but urban areas display more reported cases of nonphysical abuse, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (1988). Miller and Veltkamp (1989) studied a small rural county in Kentucky with nearly 300 reported cases of child abuse (many times greater than any type of national average).

The vast majority (95%) of spouse abuse victims are female. Estimates indicate that the number of wives who are beaten or in other ways injured by their spouses and ex-spouses number close to two million each year. Once again, the prevalence of spouse abuse may be many times larger than the reported number of incidents. One study by Gagne (1992) of rural Appalachia suggests that rates of domestic violence in some rural areas may be higher than city rates.

To the knowledge of this author and others familiar with the literature on rural crime, there is no systematic research on abuse of the rural elderly. However, it is safe to say that such abuse does exist. The author, while working as a crime prevention specialist for the Indiana Cooperative Extension Service during the late 1970s, heard several accounts of "granny bashing" in the southwestern area of the state. Most often, these anecdotes related stories of children and grandchildren who used physical force against older women living in isolated rural areas in order to steal their social security checks.

Drug Use

It would be impossible to summarize fully the problems and risk behaviors associated with alcohol and drug use among rural adolescents and adults. Suffice it to say that rural-urban differences in usage rates have declined, and for some substances the rural population is ahead. This conclusion is drawn from a review of four national studies: the American Drug and Alcohol Survey, the High School Senior Survey, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, and the National High School and Beyond (NORC) Survey. A more detailed summary of patterns of rural alcohol and other drug use can be found in a special issue of the journal Drugs and Society, edited by Ruth W. Edwards, entitled "Drug Use in Rural American Communities."

There is little rural-urban difference in the use and abuse of alcohol, and the rural population may be more at risk because rural residents are more likely to drink in a motor vehicle. The rate of marijuana use, especially among rural adolescents, is only slightly lower than rates of use among urban youth. Finally, usage rates for certain hard drugs, including inhalants and stimulants, are higher for rural youth. Tranquilizer use shows no rural-urban differences. However, urban youth still exhibit higher usage rates for cocaine and cocaine derivatives - heroin and LSD (Donnermeyer, 1992).

A Profile of the Rural Offender

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports section on arrest data, 870,725 persons were arrested by law enforcement agencies covering rural jurisdictions. A comparison of arrest data in the UCR reveals two similarities and two differences in the profile of rural and urban offenders. Rural offenders are arrested for various offenses in roughly the same proportion as persons arrested by suburban and urban law enforcement agencies. This pattern is confirmed by Laub (1983), who analyzed victims' knowledge of offenders for violence, theft, and household crimes in the NCS. Another similarity is that about four out of five rural persons arrested are male, which is only one or two percentage points above the proportion of males arrested in the suburbs and cities.

The two differences involve the race and age of persons arrested. About four out of five rural offenders are white, and about one offender in eight is black. Three percent are Native Americans and one percent are Asian. In contrast, arrests in the suburbs and cities show a lower rate of white arrests - 21 percent (suburbs) and 32 percent (city), than black arrests - 78 percent (suburbs) and 66 percent (city). The second difference is that persons arrested in rural areas are older. For example, about 3 percent of rural arrestees are below the age of 15, and 10 percent are 18 years of age and younger. Nearly 40 percent of all rural arrests are of persons 25 years of age and younger. In suburban areas, about 4 percent are 15 years of age and younger, 13 percent are age 18 and younger, and 42 percent are 25 years old and younger. In cities, the ages of persons arrested becomes even younger. Slightly more than 6 percent of persons arrested in cities are 15 years old and younger. Almost 18 percent are 18 years of age and younger, and 47 percent are 25 years of age and younger.

Arrest profiles hardly tell the full story of rural offenders. Self-report studies, largely of rural juveniles concerning the commission of vandalism, violent crime, property crime, and the use of alcohol and other drugs, adds further evidence to the conclusion that rural crime is a serious problem. These studies show that rural youth are as prone to the commission of delinquent acts as urban youth (Donnermeyer & Phillips, 1982 and 1984; Edwards, 1992). The only difference is that rural youth are slightly less likely to commit more serious offenses, a difference that was far greater in the early rural delinquency studies cited near the beginning of this paper. Once again, rural communities are on the "same train" and the caboose is not that far behind the front engine.

Why do rural residents, in particular adolescents, commit criminal offences? Again, the answer goes back to the same economic, social, and cultural forces discussed earlier. Institutions that reinforce law-abiding behavior (primarily family, church, and school) have become weaker, while peer and other groups that encourage law-breaking behavior have gained in influence. The rural sector of American society is no different from the urban sector. As time goes on, there are more single-parent families and more families in which both parents work. Schools are consolidated, bigger, and more impersonal. Although rural persons have consistently shown higher rates of membership in religious organizations and are slightly more likely to go to church, religion's relative influence has declined. These trends create a cluster of risk factors that in turn increase the chances that adolescents will associate with peer groups that teach and reinforce attitudes and promote behavior that society considers inappropriate, such as using drugs, stealing, destroying property, resolving conflicts with violence, and so forth. The factors listed earlier create conditions in which some rural communities are more likely to exhibit weaker institutions of social control and/or stronger influences from deviance-reinforcing peer and other groups.

Gangs: Some Preliminary Evidence From Rural Communities

Despite the focus of media and researchers alike on urban gangs, some gangs already are operating in rural areas. For example, Abadinsky (1986) documents the drug-dealing and other criminal activities of motorcycle gangs in many rural areas. More recently, young white supremacists and skinhead groups have been active in a number of rural communities. Despite this evidence, research on rural-based gangs, on how they emerge, and on their connection to urban gangs simply has not been conducted.

The problem of gangs in rural communities is emerging rapidly. This author has interviewed nearly 30 law enforcement officers from a variety of rural locations throughout the United States. Without exception, these officers now see evidence of gang activity where as recently as five years ago they saw none.

How gangs emerged in rural areas illustrates the way rural and urban areas have become more closely linked and interdependent, as well as how the social forces that explain urban crime can be applied to rural areas. Based on such interviews, four models of urban-to-rural gang migration and one model of rural-to-urban gang migration are described below:

  1. Displacement. Rural communities near metropolitan areas (often referred to as "rurban" areas) may experience an increase in gang activities due to the displacement effect. Urban police, through various strategies such as saturation patrol and undercover work, make it "too hot" for a gang to continue all or part of its operation in the city. The gang moves out to the edge of the metropolitan area and sets up its operations there.
  2. Branch office. A gang from the city targets a small town and the surrounding area for two possible reasons. The first reason is that this town is near the intersection of two 4-lane roads and represents a transportation hub in a network of drug trafficking and other illegal activities. The second reason is that the street value of drugs in smaller towns is often two or three times higher than it is in large metropolitan areas, hence offering a market opportunity. Gang members seek a base of operations, perhaps through a relative or acquaintance who lives in the area, or by taking over the dwelling place of a "trophy" (i.e., an unattached, single woman). Sometimes the gang member initially lives in a rural area in order to get out of the city because another gang or the police are looking for him. The gang member then organizes the local youth or "wannabees" - youth who are at risk and prone to drug use, violence, delinquent behavior, and dropping out of school. Sometimes these local youth have developed romantic images of gangs based on cinema and television depictions of youth gangs.
  3. The franchise. Drug dealers working in rural areas may be seen as equivalent to "mom and pop" businesses. Some find it advantageous to link up with a gang from a large city. More money can be made, drugs can be transported more securely, the latest fad drug is available more quickly, and the local dealer has no choice but to cooperate or he will be forced out of business by a rival that establishes an affiliation with a gang, or the gang itself may be showing signs of moving in directly. For such reasons, a franchise style of gang has emerged in rural communities.
  4. Social learning. A rural juvenile or adult offender is incarcerated in a detention facility or jail and associates with more hardened and sophisticated detainees from the city. The person serves time and then returns to his rural community with more "street smarts" than before. He is able to take over leadership of the local "wannabees" through a combination of intimidation and superior knowledge.
  5. Hate groups. Skinheads and young members of the Aryan Nation and other white supremacist groups (many of whom grew up in rural areas) establish their base of operations in a rural area. From this base they move some or all of their activities to the fringe of a large city or even into the city, where minority groups can be targeted.

Although information on the recent emergence of gang activities in rural communities is new, it is already apparent that the underlying causes of this development are no different than those experienced by the Puritan Colony of Massachusetts Bay. A large pool of at-risk rural youth is created by these underlying causes, and the growing interdependence of the rural and urban sectors of American society facilitates the organization of rural-based youth gang activities in rural communities.

Implications for Prevention Programming

While rural crime may suggest the effects of urbanization, it would be incorrect to blame rural crime problems directly on the nearest large city. Rural society is changing. One of the consequences of these changes is that crime levels in rural areas are at historic highs and new problems, such as gangs, delinquency, and drug use by rural youth, have emerged.

The causes of the increase in crime in rural areas can be reduced to three sets of factors. The first can be termed opportunity factors. Transportation systems have made rural areas more accessible today. Many rural areas are urbanizing, and with urbanization comes the inevitable increase in crime. Lifestyles also have changed. In the past, when most rural people lived on farms and ranches, the place of work was the same as the place of residence. Now, most rural people do not work in agriculture. They commute to work. Rural women have entered the workforce to the same extent as urban women. Children attend consolidated schools and often stay after school for sports and other extra-curricular activities. Rural families have shifted their shopping away from the stores on Main Street to the nearest shopping mall. These lifestyle changes mean that rural homes are often vacant, which provides greater opportunity for burglary and other crimes to occur. Rural neighbors are less likely to know each other and therefore to provide surveillance of each other's property. Rural residents spend a greater amount of time in urban locations, such as shopping malls and places of entertainment, where they are at greater risk of victimization.

The second set of factors represent more basic changes in the social fabric of both the rural and urban sectors of American society. An underlying cause of violence, delinquency, drug use, and the emergence of gangs in rural areas has been the weakened influence of the family, schools, and churches on values and behavior. Rural youth, along with their urban counterparts, are exposed to images on television and in the movies that desensitize them to the consequences of violence. A recent report of the American Psychological Association (1993, pp. 32-33) concluded that:

"There is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior."

The family, school, and church become less influential in later adolescence, and the probability of engaging in illegal behaviors is determined largely by association with delinquent peer groups. Since World War II, peer influence has grown stronger while the influence of family and other societal institutions has grown weaker (Oetting & Beauvais, 1986). As rural youth gain access to a motor vehicle, the informal primary group relationships of small rural communities diminish in their influence.

The third set of factors involve the economic conditions of poverty found in many rural communities and the impact of poverty on rural families and young people. In a report prepared for the Children's Defense Fund, Sherman (1992) indicated that rural children live in poor families in greater proportions than urban children. Dropout rates of students in rural schools are higher than in urban areas. Rural schools have fewer resources for handling students with special educational needs. Sherman (1992) also cites dozens of other ways that rural youth are more "at risk" than urban youth. These risk factors contribute to the volatile mix that includes the influence of the media, delinquency prone peer groups, the mobility of the population, and a growing network of gangs.

What are the implications for prevention programming of the social, demographic, and economic forces that have shaped rural America and contribute to rising rates of crime, violence, alcohol and drug use, spouse and child abuse, emergence of gangs, and fear of crime? The first and most obvious implication is that rural communities are highly diverse. Prevention programming needs to be sensitive to this diversity. Success in one rural community does not translate to success in another. The second implication is that multi-jurisdictional programming and cooperation of prevention efforts becomes more problematic in rural communities that may be "side by side" but very different in the problems they face. Third, models that have been successful in large metropolitan areas and, for that matter, in smaller cities may be only partially successful or complete failures in rural environments.

The bottom line is that neither "urban" templates nor "rural" templates can be copied to address the problems of specific rural communities. Solutions to local problems will depend on the ability of local leadership to identify accurately and respond effectively to local problems. Unfortunately, some local rural leaders may be reluctant to admit that a problem exists or is emerging, making prevention planning difficult, if not impossible.

A scientific rendition of the social forces causing the level of violence and crime in rural communities to rise can never match the intuitive appeal and succinctness of that Ohio farmer who summed it up in 14 words: "We are on the same train as city people, but we're in the caboose." I would only add that some rural communities have moved closer to the front of the train. If there was ever an opportune moment for prevention programming to work, it is now and it is in America's rural communities.


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