“Things Have Changed Around Here”: Perceptions of Crime and Safety in Rural Southeastern Kentucky

L. Cait Kanewske

Major Professor: Charlotte Gill, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: Sue-Ming Yang, Danielle Rudes, Joseph Donnermeyer

Online Location, Online
March 27, 2023, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


Although a sizable portion of the United States population resides in rural areas, until recently the state of scholarship concerning rural crime as a whole was scant, poorly developed, and dated (Donnermeyer et al., 2006; Donnermeyer, 2007; Weisheit & Donnermeyer, 2000). However, the last several years have seen a reawakening of interest in issues of rural crime and safety. Contrary to common misconceptions of rural areas as relatively crime-free, research indicates these areas likely experience higher rates than urban areas of certain crimes, including substance use/misuse and substance use-related crime, domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, and certain types of juvenile delinquency (Kuhns et al., 2007; Weisheit et al., 2006). Given the sparse but evolving state of rural crime scholarship, there is great value in conducting a nuanced investigation into the crime- and safety-related concerns of rural residents, and their thoughts on how these problems are best addressed.  
Using qualitative analysis of 54 interviews conducted with residents of three southeastern Kentucky counties (Bell, Clay, and Harlan), this dissertation investigates four research questions: 1) What are the primary crime and safety concerns of residents in this rural area? 2) What are residents’ specific concerns pertaining to substance use and substance use-related crime in this rural area? 3) According to residents, why do individuals (including juveniles/youth) become involved in substance use and other risky/criminal behavior? And 4) What do residents identify as the primary protective factors insulating individuals (including juveniles/youth) from involvement in substance use and other risky/criminal behavior?
Analysis shows that residents are exceptionally concerned with substance use (particularly methamphetamine use and opioid misuse), drug-related theft, domestic violence, and child abuse. Regarding risk for criminal involvement, residents describe an interlocking constellation of factors: hopelessness, apathy, and boredom engendered by community decline, ready availability of the substances in neighborhoods, cultural attitudes permissive towards substance use, pervasive substance use among family members, friends, and neighbors, few opportunities for gainful employment, chemical dependency, and absence of accessible substance use intervention services. Conversely, when speaking about protective factors, residents describe a corresponding constellation of factors insulating individuals from criminal behaviors: engagement in prosocial recreational activities, strong prosocial peer, neighbor, and family relationships, participation in the legal economy, commitment to and success in education, and personal resilience. These risk and protective factors rarely occur in isolation; rather, they are component parts of entire sprawling webs of factors operating in and across community-level, group-level, and individual-level domains. A particularly important finding of this dissertation is that collective efficacy and social disorganization appear to operate in dual ways in this rural community as strong social ties among friends, families, and neighbors are both primary risk and protective factors for substance use and criminal involvement.