When policymakers talk about problems with the nation's jails and over-incarceration, they are often discussing concerns that center on the largest cities.
But a new study released Tuesday shows that rural jails are growing the fastest and are driving a national increase in jail population. That growth is especially surprising, researchers say, because it comes even as the crime rates in those rural areas remain much lower than their urban counterparts.
"This is a phenomenon that has been overlooked," said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation, which helped fund the study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice. "We've seen a modest decline in big metro jails, but the numbers have continued to go up in small and rural jails."
Researchers at the Vera Institute arrived at their conclusion after analyzing newly released Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
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Between 1970 and 2013, researchers found, pretrial incarcerations – when people charged with a crime are held in jail – have increased by more than 425 percent in rural counties. By comparison, Vera researchers found that since 2000, pretrial incarcerations in big cities have leveled off. And in some cities, such as Atlanta and New York, the number of people incarcerated have declined.
The jail incarceration rate in New York City is now almost the same as its less-urban neighbor Westchester County, according to the study. The rate also is lower in Los Angeles than in Orange County.
The growing urban-rural jail divide is most acute in the South and West.
In Washington state, Whatcom County’s incarceration rate in 2014, the latest data available, is 276.3 per 100,000 residents. That’s above the state rate of 237.4, but well below the national, at 341.4, according to the study.
The data also shows people of all ethnic backgrounds were in 2014 jailed at a rate disproportionate to the county population. Most people of color were jailed at a rate higher than their county population, while white people and Asians were jailed at a lesser rate, according to the data:
▪ Native Americans, which made up 2.9 percent of the county population, made up 21.4 percent of the jail population. (Sheriff Bill Elfo said the Lummi Nation has often used Whatcom County Jail for long-term incarcerations – as long as 8 years, in one case).
▪ Blacks, which made up 1.5 percent of the county population, made up 5.8 percent of the jail population.
▪ Latinos, which made up 8.6 percent of the county population, made up 10.9 percent of the jail population.
▪ Asians, which made up 5.3 percent of the county population, made up 2.9 percent of the jail population.
▪ White people, which made up 81.6 percent of the county population, made up 58.4 percent of the jail population.
One reason for the dramatic growth of rural jails nationwide are the increasing financial incentives that rural jails receive for renting out beds to federal, state and other local agencies, the study authors argue.
According to the new study, 84 percent of jails hold people on behalf of other local jails or state and federal authorities. In the 1970s, fewer than half of U.S. counties reported holding someone for another agency.
"These jails have created jobs and revenue that some of these counties are using to offset other costs," Garduque said. "In some places, you fund your criminal justice system essentially by leasing out your beds in jail."
The study's authors made clear that crime is not driving the growth in rural jails, as crime rates are generally down nationwide. Crime rates remain substantially lower in rural counties than in urban areas.
"People often think jail incarceration is connected to crime, but this is happening in areas that haven't seen increase in crime," said Jacob Kang-Brown, a Vera senior research associate.
Instead, the study's authors pointed to the lack of resources for justice systems in rural areas as another likely reason they are seeing growing jail populations.
"The one thing that we saw that united these counties are the fact that they are very under-resourced places," said Ram Subramanian, Vera's editorial director. There are fewer judges to quickly hear cases, a lower level of pretrial services and fewer alternatives to incarceration in rural areas, he said.
The Bellingham Herald reporter Kyle Mittan contributed to this article.