Incarceration Data Reveals ‘Sharp Urban-Rural Divide’ Across US

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Sharp disparities between the imprisonment rates of urban and rural Americans illustrate the “new dynamics of mass incarceration” in the U.S., the Vera Institute of Justice said Friday.

Vera released the latest data from a new tool exploring incarcerations trends, that drills down into prison admission and incarceration rates at the county level, with breakdowns by race and gender, based on 2015 figures.

“The (data) reveal an important truth,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach and public affairs strategist for Vera, in a statement accompanying the report.

“The problem of mass incarceration is in all our backyards.”

The new data shows, for example, that Broome County, a rural region in upstate New York with about 200, 000 residents, sends people to state prison at a rate 45 percent higher than New York City.

Similarly, although the jail population in Oakland, Ca., and the surrounding Alameda County, CA, declined 33 percent between 2011 and 2015, the number of jail inmates in suburban region of San Bernardino increased 20 percent in the same period.

The figures underline what many have already noted as a “rural jail crisis” of overcrowded and outdated facilities, much of it caused by the increase in mentally ill or substance-abuser populations driven by the nation’s opioid epidemic.

The data also showed a sharp racial disparity in New York City, which has experienced some of the deepest and longest sustained reductions in crime, as well as jail populations.

In 2015, African-Americans were jailed in New York City at over ten times the rate of whites—and Latinx at five times the rate, Vera said.

What Vera described as the “sharp urban-suburban divide” in incarceration trends across the U.S. raises serious challenges for policymakers.

Travis County, Tex., where the upscale university and high tech community of Austin is located, saw a reduction of 23 percent in individuals sent to state prison between 2011 and 2015. But in rural McCulloch County, the geographical heart of Texas, the prison incarceration rate increased by more than 45 percent over the same period.

“In McCulloch County, 2.5 percent of working age males were absent from the county in 2015 because they were in the state prison system,” the Vera report said.

The full dataset available is available for download directly from Vera’s Incarceration Trends Project here.

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