Rural (In)Justice: The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails

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Photo by Neil Conway via Flickr.

Soaring jail populations, particularly in rural areas, are now driving America’s crisis of mass incarceration, a conference at John Jay College was told Tuesday.

Christian Henrichson, research director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said the number of individuals in pretrial detention in rural or small counties with fewer than 250,000 inhabitants began surpassing urban detention rates in 2008—and continues to increase even as urban jail populations are falling.

“In the last couple of decades, mass incarceration has metastasized from the largest cities to almost every community in America,” Henrichson, author of a recently released Vera study on incarceration trends, told rural journalists participating in a conference on “Rural (In)Justice:Covering America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.”

More than 11 million jail admissions are recorded every year, yet few Americans realize that jails are a primary engine of mass incarceration in the U.S. Polls show that rural residents continue to think of it as a problem largely facing urban areas, Henrichson said.

Among the factors driving the increase is the growing use of jails to house the mentally ill.

Srteven Leifman

Judge Steven Leifman, 11th Judicial Circuit, Florida. Photos by John Ramsey/TCR

“When I became a judge, I had no idea I was actually becoming the gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Florida,” said Judge Steven Leifman, Associate Administrative Judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, referring to the Miami-Dade County Jail.

Judge Leifman said people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, and that at any given time, about 550,000 people with serious mental illnesses are in jails or prisons, and another 900,000 are under correctional supervision.

It’s a “horrible, shameful American tragedy,” but it can be reversed with targeted crisis intervention programs for law enforcement working in collaboration with health and social services, he said.

Judge Leifman noted that since Miami-Dade implemented a program eight years ago that trains police officers how to identify people in crisis, and direct them to treatment and counseling services rather than arrest them, the county’s jail population has sharply reduced with no discernible increase in threats to public safety.

More than 450 counties across the U.S. are now implementing some version of the program, called the Stepping Up Initiative, a collaboration with the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

The swelling number of mentally ill individuals who are locked up is a consequence of the reduction of psychiatric beds in state facilities across the country. But analysts say it is part of a much larger problem: an increase in the numbers of individuals held awaiting trial because they or their relatives cannot afford the cost of money bonds.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO, Pretrial Justice Institute

“Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial detention,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, DC-based non-profit.

“If you’re a person of color, you’re more likely to have a high bond for the same offense than your white counterpart, as well as being less likely to make that bond.”

Other factors contributing to the high jail numbers include the opioid epidemic that has ravaged much of the American heartland, a rise in referrals of state inmates to county jails to relieve overcrowding in penitentiaries, and an increase in the use of jails to house undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation, conference speakers said.

Authorities in cash-strapped regions across rural America initially welcomed the referrals as an additional source of revenues, but many are now rethinking the practice.

Kirk Taylor, Sheriff of Pueblo County, Co., said the population of his jail has almost doubled because of state referrals.

Kirk Taylor

Kirk Taylor, Sheriff, Pueblo County, Colorado

“The legislature is … absolutely killing the counties,” Taylor said. “I have a list of 50 legislative changes that have deferred inmates to the counties.”

Larry Amerson, retired Sheriff of Calhoun County, Al., and former president of the National Sheriffs Association, said that 250 of the 600 prisoners currently held in his county come from state prisons—yet the expected boost in revenue never materialized.

According to Amerson, his county receives just $1.75 per person to cover food costs.

“Legislators often have no empathy for the problems we face,” he said.

The pressure on county authorities to meet the burden of rising correctional costs is so high that they are often faced with the unpalatable choice of building a new jail at the cost of other crucial infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals, the conference was told.

G. Larry Mays, Regents Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University and author of “Trouble in the Heartland,” said the most common way to fund county jails is through property taxes, but because many smaller counties reassess property infrequently, it can be hard for them to keep up with costs.

“Jails in rural counties suffer from both political conservativism and fiscal conservativism,” said Mays.

Both sheriffs said more attention to pretrial services and risk assessment tools were important ways of reducing recidivism as well as helping individuals receive counseling or treatment for mental illness or substance abuse issues, particularly in the midst of an opioid epidemic which has hit rural areas the hardest.

For Amerson, the jail crisis is personal. Three people in his family died of opioid overdoses—a tragedy he said might have been avoided if they had taken advantage of pretrial services providing substance-abuse counseling or treatment after they were arrested.

“I begged the parents not to make bond, but they said it wasn’t fair,” he recalled.

“The purpose of pretrial services is not to decrease the amount of people in your jails—that is a byproduct, we hope—but that is not the primary purpose,” said Taylor.

“It’s designed to find the people who are supposed to be in jail through your assessments and identify those people who are a risk to public safety.”

Bail Reform

According to Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute, reforming bail practices is one of the easier strategies to reduce jail populations.

She cited data indicating money bonds have no discernible impact in terms of improving outcomes and public safety.

“Money bonds only detain people who are too poor to post that bond, and they let bad guys who can afford to post bond get out without being assessed or having conditions that would improve public safety,” said Burdeen.

She pointed out that money bond is simply a condition of bail, and that there are other alternatives, such as  providing access to public defenders at hearings, expanding the use of citations instead of arrest, and getting prosecutors to review cases to see if defendants are eligible for referral to specialty courts.

Burdeen also noted that many places set high bonds on high-risk individuals because they don’t have preventive detention protocols, which allow the courts to find dangerous individuals and detain them.

The Pretrial Justice Institute believes elimination of money bonds could reduce sharply reduce the numbers of individuals held in pretrial detention, noting that programs underway in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey have made important progress in that area.

But solutions to the larger issues driving jail growth, such as the failure to find alternative ways to deal with individuals with mental illness and addiction issues, continue to elude policymakers, the conference was told.

“There’s something wrong with a society that is willing to spend more to incarcerate people than to treat them,” said Judge Leifman.

Marianne Dodson and Dane Stallone are TCR News Interns. The conference on Rural (In)Justice was organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report, and supported with grants from the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Safety + Justice Challenge. Readers’ comments are welcome.

One thought on “Rural (In)Justice: The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails

  1. I am not sure where Ms. Burdeen gets her data. But, to say that there is no data that shows that release on financially secured release is better than release on recognizance is just totally false…and she knows it. EVERY legitimate third party study done on the topic of pretrial release (and I am not talking about the studies that PJI has funded) has shown that release on a financially secured bond is the MOST effective way to ensure appearance. The DOJ’ Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted 15 years of research on pretrial release and each year the study produced the same results…release on a financially secured bond was the most effective way to ensure appearance. On the other side of the coin, the worst method of release, release on an unsecured pretrial services bond.

    Giving criminals excuses to commit more crimes and ignore court is not a way to solve jail overcrowding. And for anyone to say that releasing more people from jail is a way to increase public safety, is just ridiculous.

    If we truly want to reduce jail populations, we need to start investing on the front end. We need to start educating people to stop committing crimes in the first place. That is something we could all get behind.

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