Rural Jail Growth Helps Fuel U.S. Mass Incarceration

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Photo by Brent Moore via Flickr

Rural county jails are a primary source of the high U.S. inmate population, says a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice Challenge. Since the 1990s, the use of jails has expanded in rural counties, while it has dropped in urban areas. These 3,283 local jails, many swelling with increased inmate counts, are less visible to the public than are federal and state prisons.

The report traces the rise in rural incarceration partly to the growth of pretrial detention. Since 1970, the numbers jailed pretrial have grown five fold, rising 436 percent between 1970 and 2013 in rural counties. Overall, the rural pretrial detention rate dwarfs that in cities and suburbs, the report says.

Many rural jails in the South and West rent out their beds to hold inmates for federal and state governments and for other localities, sometimes expanding capacity for the purpose. Vera and MacArthur say that this growing market “results in more beds than the community needs … and [puts] taxpayers on the hook for the cost of outsized jail[s].”

The study cites places it says are working to reduce incarceration rates, such as Campbell County, Tn., and Missoula County, Mt.

The Tennessee county now has a Women in Need Diversion program that will help up to 25 low-income single mothers facing jail for the first time. The Montana County was cited for its Native Outreach Project to analyze why 50 Native Americans are jailed.

“Although it may not seem like a matter of national significance when a single jail expands from, say, 100 beds to 200,” writes Vera’s Christian Henrichson, “these numbers add up quickly when multiplied over thousands of counties.”

The report concludes that it is impossible to end mass incarceration in the U.S. “unless detention in small towns takes the same downward trajectory as has occurred in big cities.”

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