This recent New York Times piece, headlined “‘A Cesspool of a Dungeon’: The Surging Population in Rural Jails,” fills out the picture presented by the statistical story set out in this new Vera Institute report on jail populations in the United States. Here is part of the NY Times piece:
Jail populations used to be concentrated in big cities. But since 2013, the number of people locked up in rural, conservative counties such as Hamblen has skyrocketed, driven by the nation’s drug crisis.
Like a lot of Appalachia, Morristown, Tenn., about an hour east of Knoxville, has been devastated by methamphetamine and opioid use. Residents who commit crimes to support their addiction pack the 255-bed jail, which had 439 inmates at the end of October, according to the latest state data. Many cities have invested in treatment options and diversion programs to help drug users. But those alternatives aren’t available in a lot of small towns.
“In the big city, you get a ticket and a trip to the clinic,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, which released a report on Friday analyzing jail populations. “But in a smaller area, you might get three months in jail.”
The disparity has meant that while jail populations have dropped 18 percent in urban areas since 2013, they have climbed 27 percent in rural areas during that same period, according to estimates in the report from Vera, a nonprofit group that works to improve justice systems. The estimates are drawn from a sample of data from about 850 counties across the country.
There are now about 167,000 inmates in urban jails and 184,000 in rural ones, Vera said. Suburban jail populations have remained about the same since 2013, while small and midsize cities saw a 7 percent increase.
Rural jails now lock up people at a rate more than double that of urban areas. And increasingly, those inmates are women.
Here is part of the summary from the Vera report, which is titled “People in Jail in 2019”:
At midyear 2019, there were an estimated 758,400 people in local jails, up 13,200 (1.8 percent increase) from midyear 2017, which is the most recently available BJS data. This is the highest number of people in jail since midyear 2009, and the number is up 31,000 since the recent trough in 2015 (4.3 percent increase). Most people in jail have not been convicted of the charges they are facing, and many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those incarcerated due to unpaid child support or fines and fees.
The jail incarceration rate in the United States was an estimated 230 people in jail per 100,000 residents, up from 229 per 100,000 in 2017, representing a 0.5 percent increase. This brings the rate of jail incarceration up 1.3 percent since the recent trough in 2015. Jail incarceration rates are 2.8 times higher than they were in 1960.
The national increase in the local jail population hides stark diverging trends across the urban to rural continuum. Since 2013, jail populations have grown 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in small and mid-sized metropolitan areas. During the same period, jail populations have declined 18 percent in large urban counties and are down 1 percent in the suburban counties surrounding those large urban counties. In 2019, rural counties’ jail incarceration rates were more than double those of urban counties.