Local jails are booming: Between 1970 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in the 3,000-plus county and municipal facilities in the U.S. has ballooned—from 150,000 to 700,000 per day.
Contrary to popular perception, it’s not high-crime cities that are fueling the jailing explosion. According to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the geography of incarceration has shifted to smaller, rural counties. These are the places driving the increase in local jail population since the 1970s; Urban jails, while still massive, have seen the least growth.
As my colleague Brentin Mock recently explained, these trends are not a reaction to crime. Crime rates have fallen everywhere in the U.S, and in rural areas, which are now the epicenters of this boom, they’ve always been lower. A better explanation is that the way these jails are being used has changed. One, more people are being held at these facilities before they’re convicted of a crime—in pretrial detention. And two, federal agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service are renting out beds for their detainees.
The Vera Institute report, written by Jacob Kang-Brown and Ram Subramanian, confirms these reasons, and breaks down how they play out in different regions across the U.S. It finds that the rise of pretrial detention rates has been particularly drastic in rural counties, up 436 percent between 1970 and 2013. That means 200 people are stuck in rural prison, at some stage of criminal-justice limbo, for every 100,000 residents. Either they’re unable to afford bail bonds, unable to get a speedy court hearing, or (in places like Missouri and Louisiana) unable to gain access to a public defender to argue their case. Over the years, this rural pretrial incarceration rate has climbed higher than it has in urban and suburban areas:
Southern and Western rural counties have the highest pretrial incarceration rates, at 335 and 226 per 100,000, respectively. The ones in the Northeastern and Midwestern counties are much lower, but have still seen steep increases since the 1970s.
It all comes down to lack of resources. Cash-strapped rural counties have fewer personnel—judges, prosecutors, investigators, public defenders, and court administrators—and they’re spread thin over larger areas. That translates to limited hours for criminal-justice procedure and more processing time. Some counties in Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Utah, for example, only schedule district court hearings a few times a month or a year. That means people are waiting behind bars until their bail is set. Longer travel times and lack of supervision in the pretrial period makes it more likely for the accused to miss appointments and violate the conditions of bail, which can put them right back in the slammer. Plus, cities with resources can afford diversion programs that keep people with mental health or substance abuse issues out of prison. Many rural counties don’t have the resources.