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Why Smaller Cities Are Expanding Their Jails, and Their Populations

While many cities are using incarceration alternatives, some smaller cities and rural areas are building—and filling—costly new jails, new research shows.  
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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

In 2015, after nearly a decade of jail overcrowding, rural Coffee County, Tennessee, completed a brand new 400-bed jail—a facility more than twice the size of its predecessor. The jail population then skyrocketed, increasing more than 60 percent between April 2015 and April 2018 and even briefly surpassing the new jail’s capacity. While the number of people jailed had dipped slightly by September 2019, the Coffee County story is still one of increased incarceration.

The project cost a whopping $21 million to complete, a figure that does not include the cost of maintaining or staffing the new facility. And, more than half of the people in the new jail haven’t been convicted: They are being held before trial and most only face misdemeanor charges, but are likely simply too poor to afford bail in a community where 14 percent of residents live below the poverty line.