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January 22, 2018

Spotlighting the impact and import of rural realities in modern mass incarceration

This recent USA Today commentary, headlined "Ignoring rural areas won't solve America's mass incarceration problem," provides a useful reminder that all parts of the United States are part of the story of modern mass incarceration.  The piece is authored by Christian Henrichson of the Vera institute of Justice, and here are excerpts:

A little known fact imperils our nation’s collective efforts to end mass incarceration: Major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are no longer bearing the heaviest burden.  Instead, thousands of smaller cities and towns are now grappling with the nation’s highest incarceration rates.

But the reform movement has not reacted to changing incarceration trends.  In most small cities and towns, public officials are not running on reform platforms, and investment by foundations and national advocates is thin or absent.  If attention and resources are not urgently shifted to overlooked places, progress to reduce unnecessary incarceration in big cities will be totally eroded by deepening problems in the rest of the country.  This means it will be mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration — and too many Americans will be left behind.

There is no better indicator of the geography of mass incarceration than America’s 3,283 local jails.  Unlike prisons, jails exist in nearly every county in America and are under local control.  Designed to only hold people for a short time and when absolutely necessary, jails have become massive warehouses — particularly for those too poor or sick to disentangle themselves from the justice system.

Historically, jail incarceration rates have comported with our understanding of mass incarceration as an urban challenge: They were once highest in the nation’s largest cities and the lowest in the country’s rural and suburban counties. But over the past two decades, the geography of jail incarceration quietly shifted....

Since 2008, large urban jail populations have shrunk dramatically.  But even as reformers celebrated progress, jail growth went into overdrive — particularly in smaller places with limited tax bases.  In small town America, many courts do not convene regularly, resources for public defenders are scarce, and diversion options and pretrial services that might otherwise keep people out of jail beds are few and far between....

It’s also important to note that the geographic shift wasn’t limited to jails.  Recent research indicates that small and rural counties now also funnel a disproportionate share of people into state prisons, a reality that should come as no surprise given that jails function as the “front door” of the criminal justice system.

Rural counties, in particular, have been out of sight and out of mind in much of America.  But the 2016 election refocused attention onto the particular challenges of voters whose voices are often missing from the national conversation. Their burgeoning jails are a window into the pain in smaller places: shrinking economies, deteriorating public health, negligible services and pervasive addiction....

Ending mass incarceration demands a shift in resources and attention.  We need to confront what is happening in all of our backyards and understanding each community’s local incarceration story.  Policymakers and the public have to take stock of how many of their neighbors are behind bars and why — and ask difficult questions about whether wasting so much human potential and taxpayer money makes us any safer.

January 22, 2018 at 10:47 AM | Permalink

Comments

This article from a very rural American state seems timely.

https://www.abqjournal.com/1121713

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 23, 2018 12:06:51 PM

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