Rural Incarceration Rates on the Rise

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In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, a man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash. College education in American prisons is starting to grow again, more than two decades since federal government dollars were prohibited from being used for college programs behind bars. The shift comes as everyone from President Barack Obama to state policymakers are looking for ways to get better results from the $80 billion the U.S. spends annually on incarceration. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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The nation’s smallest jails, often overlooked in discussions about America’s high incarceration rate, have been quietly driving a historic increase in the number of people behind bars, according to researchers. These local jails, mostly serving rural communities with low crime rates, hold a disproportionate number of people who are waiting for trial and who are being held by outside agencies, such as overburdened state prison systems and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a newly released report says.

That’s because these communities generally lack the resources to steer low-level offenders away from pretrial detention, the researchers say. And many expand their jail capacities to win a bigger share of contracts from outside agencies. The researchers, from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge, which both advocate for jail reform, released a report Tuesday aimed at bringing more attention to what’s happening in the country’s most sparsely populated regions.

“The growth in rural jail incarceration has really flown under the radar,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the Vera researchers who helped write the report. “Many reforms to change mass incarceration are concentrated in urban areas. We tend to think that punishment and over-incarceration follows crime, and crime tends to be worse in urban areas. But rural areas have a worse jail incarceration problem.”

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