Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Rural police have fewer resources to help mentally ill or addicted citizens avoid arrest, lengthy pretrial wait in jail

In the past five years, jail populations have risen sharply in rural areas and declined in cities and suburbs. Most inmates are defendants awaiting trial; prosecutors encourage lengthy waits in jail since it helps them extract guilty pleas from people who just want to go home. "On April 17, Louisiana sheriffs revealed some 2,181 defendants, about 15 percent of the parish jail population, have been locked up for at least a year awaiting trial, with 674 of them having been there at least two years," Marc Levin writes in an opinion piece for The Hill. Levin is the vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute it says is guided by the principles of liberty, personal responsibility and free enterprise, and its conservative national campaign organization Right on Crime.

A small fraction of pretrial defendants are dangerous enough to require detention, but Levin argues that the practice harms other defendants, increasing their risk of being re-arrested in the future. "Studies suggest that this is because, as time goes by, defendants lose their jobs and homes, and become disconnected from potential sources of support such as family and community organizations like churches," Levin writes. "Indeed, academic research has found that pretrial detention reduces future employment earnings by 25 percent."

Some states and communities are using new technology to cut down on the ballooning pretrial population, such as text-message reminders of court hearings; those result in a 26 percent increase in hearing attendance, which means fewer defendents being jailed for contempt. Levin also applauds solutions that keep police from arresting people in the first place, such as more training on how to interact with the mentally ill, or having police take someone suffering a drug overdose to a hospital or detox center instead of jail. That can be harder in rural areas. "With their smaller police forces, more limited treatment capacity, and dispersed populations, implementing police diversion in rural areas requires extensive planning and collaboration," Levin writes.

But citizens' ability to access justice shouldn't depend on whether one lives in a rural or urban area, he writes, and hopes rural areas don't get left behind in criminal justice reform measures.

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