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Rural Crime - Urban-rural Crime Differences

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The murder which develops from a quarrel over the line fence, the seductions in the rural districts, and the marital infidelities on the farm do not make as dramatic stories for the sensational press as the activities of the gunmen of New York or the alleged immoralities of the so-called high society, but they are recorded in the census office. ("Rural Perfection a Myth")

A perusal of the literature on rural-urban crime differences in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals considerable empirical and theoretical confusion regarding the seemingly straightforward question of whether crime in general, and violent crime in particular, is higher or lower in rural versus urban areas. For example, an early study of homicides for Massachusetts for the period 1871–1892 showed a greater prevalence of homicides in rural as compared to urban sections of that state (Cook). Although it did not represent a particularly valid distinction between urban-rural areas, in 1910, the director of the U.S. census commented that "In general, the more serious the offense, the greater is the proportion of farmers and farm laborers among the total number of males committed (to prison) for it" (quoted in Sutherland).

The census director pointed out that while only 2.6 percent of those committed to prison for drunkenness were farmers, 18.6 percent of those committed for "grave" homicide and 19.8 percent of those committed for lesser homicide were farmers. At that time, farmers represented 18.6 percent of the male population ten years of age and older in the United States. Edwin Sutherland interpreted this comparative overrepresentation of farmers in homicide statistics as being due to the fact that "among the farmers are included the large number of Negroes in the South, with their high rate of homicide" (p. 95). Similarly, an article that appeared in the popular magazine Literary Digest ("Rural Perfection a Myth") noted that "the small cities of Kansas have a record of homicide four times as great as the large cities of New York; the small cities of Virginia seven times the rate of homicide than is credited to the large cities of Massachussets" (p. 34).

In contrast to the findings of higher homicide rates in rural areas, Dublin and Bunzel asserted that since the beginning of the twentieth century, federal statistics had demonstrated a consistently higher rate of homicide in urban as compared to rural areas. Although Dublin and Bunzel failed to describe their operational definition of rural, they claimed that the ratio of the urban to the rural homicide rate was two to one in 1900 and ten to seven in 1930. In attempting to explain these differences, Dublin and Bunzel noted that a large proportion of the murders and manslaughters in rural areas were "crimes of passion," while in urban areas economic incentives were probably more important factors in homicides.

On the other hand, Frankel noted that homicide rates in New Jersey's rural counties for the 1930–1934 period were not higher than in urban areas. George Vold argued that "in the case of murder, manslaughter, and serious sex offenses, there is little difference between rural and urban areas" (p. 40). Finally, in their classic text The Principles of Urban-Rural Sociology, Sorokin and Zimmerman argued that there was a tendency for rural areas to exhibit higher crime rates in offenses against the person, such as homicides, infanticides, and grave assaults, but a lower proportion of crimes against property.

There is also considerable confusion in the more contemporary literature regarding whether or not crime rates are higher or lower in rural areas, as measured by population size. Marshall Clinard found a relationship between city size and homicide rates, with smaller cities having lower homicide rates than larger cities. Wolfgang (1968) reported slightly higher homicide rates for rural areas in the United States in 1965 than for small cities. Similarly, Archer et al., examining the 1971–1975 period in the United States, found larger cities had higher homicide rates. Similarly, Kowalski and Duffield, using county level homicide data for 1979–1982, found that rural areas had lower rates of homicide than urban areas, and argued this was the result of reduced individualism and stronger group identification in rural areas. Mosher et al., using 1990 Uniform Crime Report data, also found that homicide rates were lowest in cities with populations under 2,500. In contrast to these findings, however, Kposowa and Breault used Uniform Crime Report and census data from over three thousand counties in their analysis of homicide for the years 1979 to 1981, and found that of the top thirty counties with the highest rates of homicide, twenty-three of them had populations below twenty thousand.

Focusing generally on violent crime and using national victimization data, Robert Sampson reported consistent and substantial differences in crime rates across units of different population size. He noted that rural crime rates are not only lower, but may in fact be the result of different causal factors. For example, Sampson found that while poverty was related to victimization in larger counties, in smaller areas the number of dwellings that contained multiple families was a more important predictor of crime victimization rates.

In order to examine the current relationship between population size and crime rates, Table 1 provides data on arrest rates per 100,000 population in 1996 for cities grouped according to their size, for a number of offenses. Murder rates are highest in cities with populations greater than 250,000 and decline for each decreasing city-size category, to a low of 3.0 per 100,000 for cities under 10,000. A similar pattern is seen for robbery, where arrest rates are over six times higher in the largest, as opposed to the smallest, cities. However, there are no clear differences in arrest rates across city size categories for the crime of larceny-theft. Although rural-urban distinctions based exclusively on size of place are not ideal, this pattern of a strong relationship between city size and violent crime rates and weaker relationships for property crimes generally holds for several different societies and in several different historical periods (Sacco et al.).

Similar relationships have been revealed in studies using victimization data. For example, Bachman analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey for the years 1973 to 1990, and found generally that individuals living in central cities had the highest rates of criminal victimization for all types of crime, while those living in nonmetropolitan (rural) areas had the lowest rates. More specifically, on average, individuals residing in central areas experienced nearly twice as many crimes of violence as those living in nonmetropolitan areas, although Bachman noted that the gap in violent crime victimization had been decreasing over the 1973–1990 period.

The notable exception to the pattern of higher crime rates in urban as opposed to rural jurisdictions revealed in Table 1 is for the offense of driving under the influence of alcohol. For this offense, rates were lowest in cities with populations greater than 250,000, increasing to a rate of 833.4 per 100,000 in cities of less than 10,000. These differences are at least partially explained by the fact that alcohol use, particularly among young people, is more frequent in rural areas. This may pose a particular problem for rural dwellers who have to spend far more time on the road, traveling longer distances.

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