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Rural Jails Are Locking Up More and More Americans

Sparsely populated areas have fewer resources to help people avoid incarceration—and a financial incentive to build bigger jails.

The number of people in jail may be falling in big American cities, as reform efforts highlight high incarceration rates—but in rural parts of the U.S., there are more and more people behind bars.

That's the finding of a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge, a MacArthur Foundation program.

“In rural counties, when they have an aging jail, people talk about: Let’s build a new one, twice as big as the  old one,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, who co-authored the study with Ram Subramanian. “Replacing a 15-bed jail with a 50-bed jail is reasonable in most places.”

Vera Institute

It’s hard to pin the rise in rural incarceration rates on a single factor, the authors said in a telephone interview.

Sixty-one percent of the people locked up in America's jails, according to the report, are awaiting trial. The authors don’t offer data on how that number compares in rural and urban counties, although they note that in more sparsely populated places, there are fewer judges, and lawyers may need to travel longer distances to reach clients. Often, people awaiting trial spend time behind bars simply because they can’t afford to post bail.  

Proactive efforts by reformers and lawmakers to lock up fewer people have generally targeted more densely populated counties, partly because it’s easier to support legal resources and diversion programs where there are more people to serve. County incarceration rates also depend on policies set by elected officials, which may vary in more sparsely populated locales. 

And coinciding with their rising incarceration rates is a growing market for jail-bed rentals, where counties rent out their extra jail space to state or federal authorities or to other counties.

On any given day, 22 percent of the U.S. jail population is made up of people being held by authorities other than local law enforcement, according to the report—up from 13 percent in 1978. And while counties' incarceration rates don't include inmates housed for outside authorities, rent-a-bed programs still may lead counties to lock up more people under their own authority, Subramanian said.

That’s because many counties have built larger jail facilities in order to rent out some of their beds to state and federal authorities. Once bigger jails have been built, they tend to get filled. If there's no outside demand, the new capacity may lead to more people being detained before they're tried: “That sheriff will want to prove to his constituency that there’s a rationale for its existence,” Subramanian said.

Particularly now, as the pace of immigration enforcement quickens under the Trump administration, the demand for contracted jail beds is unlikely to go away, the report found.

Those kinds of programs can put counties in the odd position of actively marketing their jails. “Do you have more inmates than bed space?” reads the Hanover County, Virginia, website’s pitch for jail bed rentals. (Among the amenities: law-library kiosks and a barbershop.) “If so, then Pamunkey Regional Jail may be the solution to your problems.” 


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