The pretrial population of defendants has significantly increased—particularly in rural areas of the country. Jails in smaller jurisdictions are responsible for an outsized share of jail population growth. Indeed, from 1970 to 2014, jail populations grew by almost sevenfold in small counties but only threefold in large counties. This paper explores why this growth may have occurred and makes numerous recommendations reducing pretrial populations, particularly in rural America.

Key Points

  • Both the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent demand that pretrial liberty be the norm, and that detention is to be a “carefully limited exception.” In practice, this has not been the case.

  • While prison populations have fallen recently, the nation’s
    jail populations have steadily increased—particularly pretrial detainees. Rural areas, not urbanized ones, are responsible for a disproportionate amount of this growth.

  • Potential causes for increasing rural pretrial jail populations include a lack of presumption of pretrial release, economic incentives to build unnecessary jail capacity, and rising drug abuse.

  • Possible solutions for rising pretrial populations include reducing jailable offenses, expanding police diversion, use of validated risk-assessments at intake, and revising state bail laws.