Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Analyst: Rural-urban divide in criminal justice is widening

Rural people can have a harder time with criminal justice than urban or suburban residents, and the gap is widening, Marc Levin writes for The Crime Report, published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

"First, rural areas are less equipped to deal with the spike in drug overdoses in 2020, many of which are fatal. In recent years, overdose death rates in urban areas matched or exceeded rural areas, reversing a prior pattern. More recent data by type of jurisdiction is not available; but many of the states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, that saw significant declines from 2017 to 2018 have lost ground so far this year," Levin reports. "While addiction knows no boundaries, research has found that rural areas are less likely to have accessible treatment options. Rural and smaller law enforcement agencies and paramedics may have longer response times and be less likely to carry naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug." Levin is chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Many justice systems have turned to virtual court appearances and probation check-ins, but that could be more difficult in rural areas with poor connectivity. "Fortunately, text messaging and phone applications that do not require this level of connectivity provide an alternative for pretrial services and community supervision officers to keep in touch with those they are supervising," Levin reports.

Indigent defense has long been a challenge in rural areas, and the pandemic "has made it more difficult for defense lawyers to meet with their clients, whether that is due to protocols limiting access to defendants in jail or the challenge of maintaining a safe office environment with frequent visitors," Levin reports. "Rural areas have largely been left behind by advances in urban areas such as holistic defense, through which organizations like Bronx Defenders connect their clients to services and treatment, resulting in better outcomes by solving the challenges that led them to be involved in the justice system."

Another inequality, Levin notes, is that 54% of prisons are in rural areas, which increases the risk of coronavirus transmission among the incarcerated as well as staff and the community beyond.

A recent report from the Southern Methodist University Law School's Deason Center has some recommendations for closing the rural-urban gap in criminal justice. Their suggestions include "innovations in technology and training, law school legal clinics serving Native American tribes and other rural communities, and a combined undergraduate and law program for students seeking to practice in rural areas," Levin reports.

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