For too long, rural jails have been an overlooked part of American mass incarceration. Yet, rural jails have the nation’s highest pretrial incarceration rates—increasing by more than 400% from 1970 to 2013. The title of the new report from the conservative-leaning Right on Crime perhaps sums up the situation best: rural areas have both Open Roads and Overflowing Jails.
Many causes account for this growth. Some areas build more capacity than necessary because jails with extra beds can generate income; in 11 states, 30% of people in jails are from out-of-state. There is also the promise of much needed employment—nearly one-third of the rural working poor live at 50% of the poverty rate. The opioid epidemic has hit rural communities hard. A county commissioner in rural West Virginia recently blamed opioid use for 90% of additional local jail costs, which make up 13% of the overall county budget. (See, though: We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out of the Opioid Crisis.)
Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that incarceration is not the answer many hoped for. Newly-built prisons do not bring long-term economic well-being. One study of all counties in the lower 48 states found there was no link between building a prison and growth in employment; in fact, in counties with lower rates of educational achievement, prisons had an inverse relationship with employment growth. There is also the criminal justice version of “nature abhors a vacuum.” In 1993, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana expanded its women’s jail from 150 to 650 beds, far beyond what was needed; by 2017, the jail was overcrowded again and the pretrial detention rate had spiked.
New national polling finds that rural Americans no longer see jails and prisons as a means to long-term well-being—if they ever did. Jails and prisons ranked last among spending priorities—after schools, roads, hospitals and water treatment facilities ranked higher. More than sixty percent (61%) polled agreed with the statement, “Building more jails and prisons to keep more people in jail does not reduce crime.”
Resisting jails invites hard work and determination—and maybe some creativity. When plans to build a new $30 million jail in St. Mary’s County, Maryland stalled, assistant sheriff Major Mike Merican created a pretrial services program with existing staff that eventually saw his jail population drop by one-third. Voters in Johnson County, Iowa twice rejected plans to build bigger jails; three years later, the jail population had dropped so much, going from 160 in 2011 to 92 to 2016, that the sheriff described himself as “shocked.” The drop has been attributed to a shift among judges to use release on recognizance, rather than surety or cash bonds, as well as diversion efforts, such as training officers to recognize behavioral health crises and diverting such cases from jail, and concentrated efforts to expedite cases among people who are detained.
Small towns can help lead our country away from mass incarceration with determination, creative problem solving and a respect for both community well-being and individual liberty. These are the best of American values, no matter where you’re from.