As a candidate and now as President, Donald Trump has promised to lock more people up. Undocumented immigrants. Drug dealers. Gang members in Chicago. But the tough on crime approach favored by President Trump won’t just hurt people in cities he’s painted as urban hellscapes. New research finds that the areas helping drive America’s rapidly rising incarceration rates are in rural America—areas, in other words, that voted for Trump.
A new report based on data that until recently remained siloed across the country shows that even as cities like New York and Los Angeles have been reducing their jail populations, jails in rural counties—think Campbell County, Tennessee or Boone County, Arkansas—are growing exponentially.
“These places, as we saw in the election, felt overlooked and forgotten,” says study co-author Ram Subramanian, editorial director of the Vera Institute of Justice. “There are a lot of states engaged in criminal justice reform. They have to cater to these places and pay attention.”
Subramanian and co-author Jacob Kang-Brown owe their discovery to Incarceration Trends, a data visualization tool built by the institute, which aggregates county-level data on the demographics of all of the country’s jails. By freeing criminal justice data from the confines of so many dusty filing cabinets belonging to state and local authorities, the tool’s makers have created a centralized, easy-to-sort database that allows researchers to spot trends they otherwise would likely have missed.
“There is a window of opportunity here and an increasing acknowledgement on the part of law enforcement executives that they want to be ahead of the curve and be in control of their data,” says Jack Glaser, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. The problem has been that different jurisdictions keep their own data without offering ways to connect or compare it to other locales, making trends—especially those that go against the conventional wisdom—very difficult to spot. Now criminal justice reform groups are working to aggregate state and local data on key metrics like police stops and use of force incidents. Meanwhile, a group called Measures for Justice recently launched a massive database that houses county-level data on everything that happens after a person has been arrested.
Incarceration Trends is based on jail census and survey data on who exactly is in jail at any given time. Because it dates back to 1970, Kang-Brown says, it gives counties a sense of “what was normal” before the era of mass incarceration. Sometimes it leads to unexpected discoveries—the growth of the rural jail population among them.
“Not surprisingly given the way the media markets operate, most stories have focused on larger metro populations,” says Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation, which sponsored the study. “This is sort of an example of something hidden in plain sight.”
Vera Institute of Justice
Vera researchers found that contrary to the national narrative, the incarceration rate at large county jails are now lower than most other counties, thanks to concerted efforts by cities like New York and Los Angeles to curb their ballooning jail populations. Meanwhile, rural jail populations have spiked in recent years, even though crime rates have remained largely the same.
Digging deeper into the data revealed a few reasons why. For starters, pre-trial detention rates—that is, the percentage of people who serve time while awaiting trial—have tripled nationwide since 1970. Still, as urban pre-trial detention rates have dropped precipitously, they’ve risen the most in the country’s rural counties with fewer than 250,000 residents. Between 1970 and 2013, rural pre-trial detention rates grew some 436 percent.
“They’re legally innocent,” says Kang-Brown. “They’re not yet convicted of a crime, and they’re doing time regardless of that.”
The problem, Kang-Brown, explains often comes down to a lack of resources. These rural counties are understaffed, which can lead to long delays in setting court dates. They also sometimes lack the funding that bigger cities use to set up the kind of mental health and drug treatment programs that keep people out of jail.
But there are more perverse incentives driving rural counties to increase the size of their jail populations. For one thing, they can make money off by renting out beds to federal and state prisons that need extra capacity. It’s a nationwide problem; about 20 percent of people in jail on any given day are serving time for another jurisdiction. But this displacement is particularly acute in rural counties. Since 1970, the rate of people from other jurisdictions serving time in rural jails has grown 888 percent. By contrast, that rate has grown only 134 percent in urban areas. That may sound like an obscure statistic. In practice, it has resulted in some counties building jails much larger than the local community would ever require. And that can lead to even more incarceration of local citizens, because, as Kang-Brown explains, “There’s a dynamic where you could build excess capacity and get used to it and fill it with locals.”
Vera Institute of Justice
At the very least, Glaser says, having so many open, empty jail beds relieves rural communities of the pressure to cut down on arrests that some larger cities have faced. “There would no longer be the downward pressure to avoid unnecessary arrests and jailing because of the jail being at capacity,” he says.
The fact that local governments would be expanding their jail populations as just another revenue stream should be chilling to anyone living in these rural communities. The question is whether the Trump administration, in its purported quest to stand up for the “forgotten men and women” of the United States, will do anything about it.
Subramanian is doubtful, given the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department’s vocal commitment to cracking down on drug crimes and locking up undocumented immigrants. But he says the good news is this is not an issue in which the federal government has the final say. In fact, given that the majority of the people incarcerated in the US are in state and local prisons and jails, it falls to local leaders to enact these changes. “His moves on the federal level are against the grain of what’s happening in the rest of the country,” Subramanian says. And with so much more data accessible and easy to make visible, local leaders will have the information they need to make decisions that truly serve their communities.