Written by Warren Socher
The U.S. Census Bureau classifies rural areas as those with populations of 2,500 or less.Any population figure above this is considered urban. This strict designation should be discarded for analysis’s sake, however. “Rurality” or common characteristics that can be attributed to more rural areas as opposed to urban should be examined on a spectrum, occupying a vast space between wilderness and expansive metropoles. Many places will not fit snugly into any rigid category. However, locales with populations that are situated closer to the Census Bureau’s rurality benchmark tend to present similar characteristics and patterns perhaps less common in more dense, urban areas. The social, geographical, and economic situations endemic to rural places contribute to the prosecutor’s role in rural societies.
The role of rural prosecution can only be understood through the surrounding socioeconomic conditions that frequently characterize rural areas, and that create a unique legal landscape. For one, the impacts that poverty has on rural populations is unique. There is a mutualistic relationship between low population density and less diverse economies in rural areas. Reliance on paltry presence of industry impacts rural areas severely when an economic downturn occurs. Limited access to medical care and treatment facilities for drug addiction also hurt rural areas, especially amid the opioid crisis. People will often have to travel great distances to receive care, and many cannot spare the time to leave their jobs to acquire medical care. The physical intensity of agricultural and industrial labor in rural areas presents a higher frequency of injury among laborers, and to keep working while recovering, some workers have become dependent on opioids to treat pain and remain productive. Even in the absence of treating pain, it is customary for some workers to use opioids to diminish the physical and mental effects of exertion, making them significantly more productive. This dependency is difficult to treat when recovery options are sparse, and emergency responses to overdoses and hospital transport times put opioid users at a much higher risk of death.
The legal impacts of a small-scale economy and limited access to medical care and addiction recovery centers are substantial for rural communities. Where there is little access to drug treatment centers in rural America, local law enforcement and prosecution might serve to exacerbate the problem, for several reasons. For one, the more conservative disposition of rural criminal justice tends to be more morally scornful of selling and using drugs, therefore making punitive legal intervention like incarceration a more prevalent approach than diversion. For example, North Carolina in the recent past has brought “drug-induced homicide” charges against drug users and dealers amid overdoses. A person can be sentenced for a second degree murder if the “murder is one that was proximately caused by the unlawful distribution of any opium, opiate, or opioid; any synthetic or natural salt, compound, derivative, or preparation of opium, or opiate, or opioid; cocaine or other substance described in N.C. Gen. Stat. §90-90(1)d.; methamphetamine; or a depressant described in G.S. 90-92(a)(1), and the ingestion of such substance caused the death of the user.” These charges, in part, will stick because rural resource-scarce coroner’s offices are not capable of running full toxicology reports, thereby simplifying a potentially complex cause(s) of death, making a homicide conviction more attainable for prosecution. Also, the absence of abundant drug treatment centers in rural areas limits the scope of legal intervention to exclude diversion to treatment facilities.
The differences in the social structures of urban and rural places, and the focuses of each location’s criminal justice system reflect the internal organization of prosecutors’ offices. In larger, urban settings, a chief prosecutor can have dozens of line prosecutors and attorneys working under them. Large urban governments and economies with demand for highly skilled attorneys create a competitive environment for career advancement. This atmosphere in large prosecutor’s offices tends to foster more adversarial relationships between prosecutors and judges, unlike the more collaborative tendencies of smaller, rural prosecutors’ offices. Urban line prosecutors are often burdened with excessive caseloads without the time to give every case a thoughtful consideration before pursuing charges against a defendant. Chief prosecutors might only be able to provide limited oversight to the line prosecutors and attorneys, due to the volume of workers and cases each one is encumbered with. The lack of oversight could lead to issues of accountability that could thwart a chief prosecutor’s agenda. In more rural areas, there is more frequent collaboration and closer relationships in the workplace, which may contribute in part to behavior such as the judicial deference from defense attorneys, apart from the economic necessity of relying on judges to assign them cases. A hard fought and fair consideration of a criminal case might give way to more administrative efficiency.
Regarding other issues proximate to rural economies, law school graduates seeking to jump start their careers are more inclined to saddle up with larger, more established ‘big city’ firms that presents an upward career path. This is one contributory factor for the dearth of rural lawyers and inadequate legal institutions. However, rural people in response to this deficit have invented their own methods for dispute resolution without having to be encumbered with the procedural burdens attached to legal intervention, which has reduced the demand for lawyers in these areas; some attorneys that have attempted to set up practices in more rural areas have found it difficult to secure a clientele base. The absence of lawyers also signals an absence of state public defender offices. Attorneys for impecunious clients are instead court-appointed. The court appointed attorneys are likely to rely on a single judge to give them cases, and since other clientele might be sparse, the defense attorney might show judicial deference to the point of producing unfavorable outcomes for their client. Maintaining a strong professional relationship with the judge helps ensure job security for court appointed attorneys.
A problematic relationship like this has been observed in Ferguson, Missouri, (population: 20,000) where Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police bolstered public outrage against police brutality. This population figure is more proximate to characteristically rural areas than metropolitan areas, despite the census classification as urban. One person may serve simultaneously as a part-time prosecutor in one county and as a judge in a contiguous county. Situations arise where “Defense attorneys litigate in an untenable position because should they advocate for their client against the prosecutor in case A, the prosecutor may punish their client in case B, where the prosecutor is the judge.” In Iowa, a public defender serving one town was at the same time the prosecutor for the neighboring town. A Texas court once allowed a judge to issue a search warrant of a defendant’s home, whom the judge had previously prosecuted in another case. The court upheld this practice, as it indicated that without the use of ‘repeat players,’ administering justice in many areas of Texas would prove untenable, as a number of judges would lose their seats. The inadequacy of rural legal systems and the shortage of legal aid have forced governments to cast aside concerns of conflicting interests that affect case outcomes.
Rural social structures affect the criminal justice system, but in seemingly contradictory ways according to different studies. Exceptional leniency and severity seem to characterize enforcement and sentencing of crimes. One study claims that rural prosecutors have “more intimate relationship[s] with their community and its members, which can lead to a more flexible approach when dealing with criminal defendants. The good guy/bad guy distinction becomes hazier when prosecutors’ firsthand knowledge of their community gives them a more complete understanding of individuals who come through their office.” However, this hypothesis is confounded by studies that have shown that those charged with minor drug or property crimes in rural areas usually face more severe outcomes than those charged with the same crimes in an urban jurisdiction. The alleged flexibility of law enforcement when engaged with a small, familiar community might be detrimental in protecting victims of domestic abuse, evidenced by the lack of enforcement and pursuit of charges involving domestic violence. The non-service rate of restraining orders issued against an abusive partner is significantly higher in rural areas than in urban areas. The non-service rate for restraining orders in rural Kentucky in 2005 was at least three times higher than the non-service rate in urban areas of the state. Among more rural and conservative criminal justice institutions and the societies they are connected to, intimate partner violence has been oft treated as a private matter (not legal) to either be kept secret and resolved in the home or through marriage counseling, which courts have recommended to 17% of rural domestic abuse cases, but none in urban settings.
The function and operation of prosecutors in urban and rural locales may fundamentally differ along numerous lines, but population density is a source from which specific social and economic conditions emerge. And, under certain conditions, the function of a place’s institutions is molded to address certain needs. Within specific socioeconomic atmospheres, the roles of prosecutors and law enforcement in rural and urban settings are formed.
 Lisa R. Pruitt, Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural Difference, 23 Wis. J.L. Gender & Soc’y 347, 354 (2008).
 Because of the complications of defining rurality and the lack of data about rural prosecutorial practices, I focus more on rural environments in this post.
 Lisa R. Pruitt, Bradley E. Showman, Law Stretched Thin: Access to Justice in Rural America, 59 S.D. L. Rev. 466, 483 (2014).
 Id. at 487.
 Id. at 486-87.
 Valena E. Beety, Prosecuting Opioid Use, Punishing Rurality, 80 Ohio St. L.J. 741, 750 (2019).
 Id. at 757.
 N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-17 (West)
 Beety, supra note 6, at 761.
 Madison McWithey, Taking A Deeper Dive into Progressive Prosecution: Evaluating the Trend Through the Lens of Geography Part One: Internal Constraints, 61 B.C.L. Rev. E-Supplement I.-32, 43 (2020).
 Ronald F. Wright, Kay L. Levine, Place Matters in Prosecution Research, 14 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 675, 683 (2017).
 McWithey, supra at 44.
 Id. at 43.
 Wright & Levine, supra note 11, at 685-86.
 Id. at 683.
 Pruitt & Showman, supra note 3, at 493.
 Beety, supra note 6, at 753.
 Pruitt & Showman, supra note 3, at 492.
 McWithey, supra note 10, at 41-42.
 Wright & Levine, supra note 11, at 682.
 Pruitt, supra note 1, at 381.
 Id. at 384.