Rates of crime and delinquency vary widely across communities, and research going back many decades provides a good understanding of the nature, correlates, and probable causes of these community differences. Unfortunately, previous studies have been limited in an important way. Virtually all studies of communities and crime are based on large urban areas, almost totally excluding nonmetropolitan areas—that is, rural areas and smaller cities and towns. The findings in this Bulletin help to fill some gaps in the research by examining variations in rates of juvenile violence across nonmetropolitan communities in Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, and South Carolina.
Social disorganization is the primary theory by which criminologists account for rates of crime in urban communities. If this theory also applies to rural settings, then what is known about crime in urban areas can provide a basis for developing programs that address the problem of delinquency in smaller communities. The research presented in this Bulletin indicates that the principles of social disorganization theory hold up quite well in rural settings. As in urban areas, rates of juvenile violence are considerably higher in rural communities that have a large percentage of children living in single-parent households, a high rate of population turnover, and significant ethnic diversity. These factors, it should be noted, are statistical correlates and not causes of such violence; nor are they the only correlates.
Research limited to large urban areas leaves out as much of the U.S. population as it captures. According to the 1990 census (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1992), only 49 percent of the U.S. population lives in urbanized areas of 500,000 or more, 25 percent lives in fully rural settings (i.e., places with populations of no more than 2,500), and another 12 percent lives in towns or cities of fewer than 50,000 population. (The remaining 14 percent lives in midsized urban areas with populations between 50,000 and 500,000.) Although overall crime rates are higher in urban than in rural areas (Maguire and Pastore, 1995), this difference is not as large as is widely assumed, and crime rates in small towns and rural areas vary considerably.
Several researchers on crime have called for more focus on rural settings, which have unique crime problems (e.g., the theft of agricultural equipment and commodities) (Smith and Huff, 1982; Swanson, 1981; Weisheit, Wells, and Falcone, 1995). Equally important are the striking similarities that exist between urban and rural areas. For instance, there are comparable crime trends over time, and the relationship of crime to important factors such as age, sex, and race of the perpetrator and victim is nearly identical (Bachman, 1992; Laub 1983a, 1983b).
Laub (1983b) concluded that most individual-level theories of crime and delinquency, developed in reference to urban settings, are likely to apply to rural settings. The question of whether the relationship between community characteristics and rates of crime and delinquency is the same in both urban and nonurban settings requires additional study. The rural-urban dimension (i.e., whether a community is rural, urban, or somewhere in between) is itself an essential aspect of communities, and current theories of communities and crime would be far more useful if they applied to communities at all points on the rural-urban continuum. To determine whether the theories are widely applicable, the authors conducted a county-level analysis of youth violence to test whether social disorganization theory (Shaw and McKay, 1942) applies to nonmetropolitan communities.