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New study finds rural areas draw more crime: highways, tourism, and shopping centers to blame.

CUMBERLAND, MD - November 30, 1999 -- A newly published study reports that, while crime has been decreasing nationwide, it has been on an upward course for much of rural America. These trends are clear for index crimes, which include eight of the most serious crimes reported to the FBI, including murder, burglary, aggravated assault, rape, and arson. However, the gap between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas is closing more rapidly for non-index crimes, which include crimes generally regarded as less serious, such as white collar crimes, and drug and alcohol-related arrests. In fact, arrest rates are now actually higher for some categories of crimes than in metropolitan areas, starting with domestic abuse, fraud, manslaughter, DUI, forgery, marijuana sale and possession, synthetic drugs sale and possession, burglary, arson, and embezzlement.

"This increase in non-metropolitan crime comes as a bit of surprise," notes the author of the study, Dr. Terry Rephann, "because many economic and demographic trends in rural America mirror those that have contributed to a downturn in metropolitan crime rates, namely an aging population and increased legal employment opportunities." However, several countervailing factors appear to oppose this trend, he explains. "Basically, rural America is beginning to catch-up with urban America in some ways that tend to increase crime--ethnic demographics, lifestyles, level of economic development, increased reliance on services industries, and so forth."

The study examines several possible causes of increased crime, including highways, gambling casinos, retail trade, tourism, and prisons. "I lined up the usual suspects in the study but they were generally not guilty" notes Rephann. "For instance, there is a perception among the public that gambling casinos and prisons, in particular, are huge contributors to rural crime, but that is really not the case. The real culprits are the types of things that often go unnoticed, for instance, highways, tourism, and retail shopping centers."

"Take highways, for example. My model predicts that a new interstate highway link adds about 140 crimes to the crime rate. For the typical rural county that would mean about a 5% increase in the crime rate. But, that figure doesn't include non-index crimes like drug offenses and white collar crimes. I'd also predict about two additional cases of weapons violations, twenty drug offenses, twenty-four DUIs, fourteen instances of public drunkenness, and seven runaways. It starts to add up, and can place a tremendous strain on local police departments if the community has not adequately planned for the crime pressures that are likely to follow new highway construction."

Also, casino gambling, per se, is not a big crime stimulus. The fault appears to lie more generally with the tourism industry, of which casino gaming is but one small part. "Basically, any activity that brings a lot of people from outside the community has the potential for increasing crime. Not only does it bring in lots of people, including some who are less likely to observe the rules, but it increases the number of potential criminal targets and makes it more difficult to conduct law enforcement because you have so many strangers in the community."

The story is not entirely downbeat, Rephann adds, "Rural communities are not powerless in the face of such trends. Localities make choices about what kinds of economic development activities they want to promote. A useful rule of thumb is that if you ship the product or service outside of the area (as in farming and manufacturing), it will not be a crime aggravating activity. However, if people must visit your community to consume or buy your products, even for such harmless pursuits as tourism or shopping, you must expect more crime. In that event, you need to make sure that law enforcement has enough resources to deter the crime influx before it starts."

Source: Rephann, T. J. Links between rural development and crime. Papers in Regional Science. October 1999, Volume 78, Number 4, pp. 365-386

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