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Number of people locked up in rural jails is skyrocketing

Number of people locked up in rural jails is skyrocketing


A new report shows that the number of people locked up in rural jails has continued to significantly increase, making it difficult to decrease the total number of people locked up in the United States.

The report, written by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, argues that the real challenge to reducing the prison population requires reform in the rural counties where the population is under 250,000 people.

This will likely be a surprise to many, with the conventional wisdom being that the major issue lies in big cities. But pretrial incarceration rates in rural counties increased 436 percent between 1970 and 2003.

That is a concern because many rural counties struggle to “fund and deliver justice,” the report said.

“America’s 3,283 local jails are the ‘front door’ to mass incarceration,” wrote research director Christian Henrichson at the start of the report. “But for too long, county jail systems have operated and grown outside public view.”

Researchers who worked on the report found two major issues causing the rural jail boom. More people are being held in pretrial detention and either being denied bail, or have bail so high that can’t pay it, and there are more people locked up in rural jails who were actually arrested somewhere else.

That is primarily because a number of rural jails are now moneymakers for the counties they are in, with many renting out beds to federal, state and other local governments.

“In some cases, jails are even building new capacity to meet external jail bed demands unrelated to crime in their own jurisdiction,” a report summary said. “In 11 states in the South and West, for example, more than 30 percent of the people in jail were held for other authorities.”

Henrichson said the use of jails has declined in urban areas even as their use has skyrocketed in rural areas.

“While it may not seem like a matter of national significance when a single jail expands from, say, 100 beds to 200, these numbers add up quickly when it is multiplied over thousands of counties,” Henrichson said. “Consequently, it is mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration if the jail populations in small towns do not take the same downward trajectory as big cities.”