When most of us think of rural areas, we conjure up bucolic images of the countryside with more serenity and fewer hassles than are encountered in city life. However, in recent years, that image has been disrupted with revealing books such as J.D. Vance’s compelling “Hillbilly Elegy” and stark data showing rural areas are lagging in prosperity and facing rising social ills such as opioid overdoses and teenage pregnancy.
A related phenomenon is that rural jail populations are continuing to explode even while the last five years have seen sharp declines in urban areas and modest drops in suburban areas. The largest contributor to these jail populations are defendants awaiting trial. In fact, rural pretrial incarceration grew 436 percent from 1970 to 2013, and the growth has continued unabated since 2013.
A legal truism is that possession is nine-tenths of the law, reflecting the notion that courts are unlikely to take property away from someone who has been occupying it. In the context of pretrial incarceration, if someone must remain in jail for weeks, months, or even years awaiting trial, the prosecutor has tremendous leverage to secure a guilty plea, even from those who may be innocent. 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.
While a small share of pretrial defendants present such a danger to the community that they must be detained, research has found that for all but the highest-risk defendants pretrial incarceration actually increases the odds of re-arrest. 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. Indeed, academic research has found that pretrial detention reduces future employment earnings by 25 percent.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As we highlight in a report to be released at the end of the month, many jurisdictions are stepping up to stem the tide of pretrial incarceration in rural areas. For example, in Maine, an overwhelmingly rural state, a non-profit called Maine Pretrial Services is using proven risk assessment tools to identify those brought to jail who are suitable for pretrial supervision.
This gives judges another option besides either setting a bail amount the defendant can’t afford or releasing the defendant on their own recognizance, which many judges are reluctant to do. Pretrial supervision means that the defendant has access to treatment services and must regularly report to their pretrial services offer.
Fortunately, emerging technologies are making this even more effective. First, new risk assessment tools, such as the Public Safety Assessment developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, allow defendants to be assessed for risk of failing to appear, re-arrest, and violent re-arrest based on factors in their records that do not require an interview. This means that within 24 hours most defendants can be identified as suitable for release with appropriate conditions. Also, for those released on pretrial supervision, many agencies are now using text reminders of court hearings, which result in a 26 percent increase in defendants showing up for court.
However, addressing spiraling rural pretrial incarceration rates must also involve solutions that begin before the jail door opens. Among these solutions are providing police more tools to divert suitable people from jail, whether it is a mentally ill person screaming at a restaurant who the officer can connect with mental health services or a person suffering a drug overdose who can be taken to a detoxification center or hospital.
Hardly a rural area, Seattle was a pioneer in police diversion with the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which dramatically reduced recidivism and costs associated with the jail and emergency room visits. Key components of such police diversion initiatives are the availability of treatment options, a method of transportation, and a case manager who the cop on the street can hand the case off too as they resume their vital policing work. With their smaller police forces, more limited treatment capacity, and dispersed populations, implementing police diversion in rural areas requires extensive planning and collaboration. Fortunately, successful rural models are in the offing, as Colorado has included two rural communities among the six pilot LEAD sites authorized by state lawmakers in 2017.
Rural and urban areas each appeal to different segments of our nation, as some American desire the excitement of city life while others prefer being closer to nature. However, because the quality of justice must not depend on your address, the countryside of our country must not be left behind as the criminal justice reform train leaves the station.