You don’t need to be a cartographer to look at the county map of the 2016 presidential election to see that there is a political divide between dense urban areas and rural America. This chasm will almost certainly be on display again as the results roll in on Election Night. Media reports on criminal justice often relate exclusively to urban areas. However, policymakers must focus not just on our nation’s largest cities, but also on rural communities where long distances can make it more difficult to access justice.
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. While addiction knows no boundaries, research has found that rural areas are less likely to have accessible treatment options and 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.
Sadly, suicides, another epidemic that has worsened in 2020, are more prevalent in rural areas, indicating a need for more accessible mental health services. An innovative program in Colorado pools statewide resources to provide transportation for people in rural areas who require urgent inpatient mental health services.
One silver lining to the pandemic has been the justice system’s adaptive use of technology. In many cases, defendants released prior to trial and people on probation or parole are checking in with their supervising officer or judge through virtual meetings. Preliminary data indicates that virtual appointments reduce failures to appear, which can result in a person being revoked to jail or prison. Appropriate use of virtual hearings, which was endorsed in a new American Legislative Exchange Council model policy, is even more valuable in rural areas given that transportation can be a significant barrier to appearing in court.
While such check-ins through Zoom or other online services have become ubiquitous, the Federal Communications Commission notes that one-quarter of rural residents lack broadband internet service. 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. For example, in Tulsa, a non-profit service Uptrust not only uses text messages to remind defendants of court hearings but also connects them with services, such as treatment.
Also, since the pandemic began, a tech startup has partnered with 15 Texas counties on a phone application used by some people on probation in lieu of in-person reporting. Likewise, some rural counties in South Dakota responded to the pandemic by installing kiosks in courthouse lobbies that test alcohol levels for participants in a 24/7 sobriety program without any need for in-person interaction. While ignition interlocks remain common in cases involving repeat drunken driving cases, promoting sobriety more broadly is important since, in addition to the possibility of a different car being driven, alcoholism in some individuals manifests in another types of criminal activity such as domestic violence.
None of this is to devalue the importance of in-person connections that can only occur through safely returning to in-person proceedings and meetings with proper precautions, whether in rural or urban areas. However, these technologies will continue to offer a valuable option for supervising individuals whose risk and needs level does not require in-person interaction as well as a way to supplement supervision and services for those people on pretrial supervision, probation, and parole who must also report in person.
One of the most serious challenges facing rural areas prior to the pandemic was indigent defense. For example, in 12 Nebraska counties there is not a single attorney. 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. 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.
Fortunately, a September 2020 report entitled “Greening the Desert” by the SMU Law School Deason Center provides practical recommendations for closing the gap, including 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.
Finally, some 54 percent of prisons are in rural areas, which creates a risk not just for those incarcerated but for staff and their families. For example, rural Marion County in Ohio has led the state in COVID-19 infections per capita, a dubious distinction that has been linked to its federal prison. Rural hospitals, some of which had already closed or downsized prior to the pandemic, must contend with referrals from prisons and outside community members competing for the same beds. Fortunately, blueprints such as the REFORM Alliance’s SAFER plan and a new Council on Criminal Justice report provide recommendations that some correctional agencies have already acted upon to reduce COVID-19 infections through sanitary protocols and social distancing to the extent it can be practiced behind bars.
The pandemic and associated disruptions have exposed the often-stretched capacities in rural counties for delivering corrections and treatment services. Yet it has also provided an impetus for innovation. This must lead to a new normal in which, regardless of how far Americans live apart, justice is within reach.