Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Rural jails have grown more crowded due to many factors, including drugs, but offer little if any treatment for inmates

By Al Cross
Professor and Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

NEW YORK – Rural jails have grown more crowded even as urban jails have become less so, creating problems for rural jurisdictions, rural journalists heard on the first day of a project aimed at focusing more local news-media attention on the problem facing many rural communities.

“In the last couple of decades, mass incarceration has metastasized from the largest cities to almost every community in America,” Christian Henrichson, research director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said at “Rural (In)Justice: Covering America’s Hidden Jail Crisis,” a conference held by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Henrichson, author of a recent study on incarceration trends, said the phenomenon "is, for the most part, a hidden crisis," driven mainly by drugs. He said 60 percent of rural jail inmates have drug issues. But there are other causes, such as:

Lack of mental-health treatment: Several speakers said states that closed mental hospitals in favor of community-based treatment haven't adequately funded treatment, especially in smaller communities. Judge Steven Leifman, who has helped reform the jail in Miami-Dade County, Florida, said the mentally ill are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than they are to be hospitalized, and 40 percent of the mentally ill will have contact with the criminal-justice system.

Burdeen (The Crime Report photo)
Increasing length of pre-trial detention: “Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial detention” of unconvicted inmates, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute. She said most can't afford their bail bonds, raising questions about how bonds are set, the policies and lobbying of the commercial bail-bond industry, and the decisions of prosecutors and judges, which may be harsher on the accused in rural areas.

Research shows that money bonds have no discernible impact in terms of improving outcomes and public safety, Burdeen said: “Money bonds only detain people who are too poor to post that bond, and they let bad guys who can afford to post bond get out without being assessed or having conditions that would improve public safety.”

Some inmates stay in jail because they can't afford even “incredibly small bail amounts,” said G. Larry Mays, Regents Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University and author of Trouble in the Heartland: Challenges Confronting Rural Jails. In such cases, he said, it would make more sense for the jail to loan the inmate the money for bail. “Jails in rural counties suffer from both political conservativism and fiscal conservativism,” he said.

In many states, the crowding of jails has been worsened by state laws or policies that put lesser felony offenders in jails, not prisons that offer rehabilitation. Larry Amerson, former sheriff of Calhoun County, Alabama, said 250 of the 600 prisoners in his jail would in earlier years have gone to state prisons, and the state pays the county only $1.75 per inmate day. Washington Post reporter Kristine Phillips, refreshing her previous beat at The Indianapolis Star, said Franklin County, Indiana, population 22,000, is among many struggling to provide mental-health treatment for state prisoners.

Several speakers said journalists can play an important role in bringing such issues to public light. Burdeen said polls have shown people are generally unaware of the issues, but when told about them, say they are concerned. "We wouldn't be here today if it weren't for journalists," she said.

This report also drew on the work of Marianne Dodson and Dane Stallone, interns at The Crime Report, published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, assisted the Center with the conference.

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