Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Agriculture Dept. program funds rural jail-building boom

Vera Institute map shows where and how much the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent funding jails since 1996.
(Click the image to enlarge it; click here for the interactive version, which gives detail on amounts and timing)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is quietly funding a rural jail-building boom. "Over the last two decades, the USDA has been funding jail construction through a program designed to finance infrastructure like emergency services, hospitals, fire stations, and community centers in agricultural areas," Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown report for the Vera Institute of Justice. "But these funds are now increasingly being directed to helping some rural counties build new, expanded jails, and helping others stay in the business of immigrant detention."

When President Trump announced this summer that farmers hurt by the trade war would receive up to $12 billion in compensation, the administration also increased USDA funding for jail construction. Such funding has been justified as important to rural development since the Nixon administration authorized the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program in the Rural Development Act of 1972. But the USDA didn't fund the first jail through that program until 1996, when it supplied $2.2 million to the Hale County Jail in Greensboro, Alabama; since then the agency has funded more than $360 million for rural jail construction, Norton and Kang-Brown report.

Vera Institute chart
"That funding has picked up speed since 2015. And, while total overall spending for the Community Facilities program has fallen by one-third since a peak in 2010, total funding allocated for jails has increased by more than 200 percent since 2010," Norton and Kang-Brown report. "In 2014, the USDA allocated almost no funding for jails, but in fiscal year 2017, it provided $31.5 million in direct loans at very low interest rates for four jail projects in rural communities. In fiscal year 2018, it plans to spend $75 million, more than double the previous year, on jails in Greene and Baker counties" in New York and Florida, respectively.

Some local residents oppose the new jails, saying that they increase debt and that the payments will take money from other important local programs -- and motivate local courts and law enforcement to fill the jails. "The USDA Community Facilities program, meant to improve economic development and quality of life, is instead increasingly being used to fund the infrastructure to detain and incarcerate more people in rural counties across the country," Norton and Kang-Brown report.

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