Rural America Has Highest Jail Incarceration Rates in the U.S. Despite Low Crime Rates, New Report Reveals
Vera Institute for Justice
Jun 13, 2017

To better understand the increasing rurality of jail incarceration, Vera examined data from its Incarceration Trends Project, which collects disparate jail data from national sources and has recently been updated with pretrial jail population data. The analysis revealed that the trends that are driving jail use nationwide—increasing use of pretrial detention and an expanding jail-bed market—are especially pronounced in rural counties, which also have fewer resources to help keep people out of jail than their urban counterparts.

Specifically, the report found that:

  • While the rate at which legally presumed innocent people are held in jail pretrial has grown 223% nationwide since 1970, it has risen 436% in rural counties, driven in large part by rural areas in the South and West.
  • Despite their higher jail incarceration rates, rural counties have lower crime rates: their property crime rate is three-quarters, and violent crime rate is two-thirds, those of cities. While the opioid crisis that is unfolding in predominately rural areas is currently under a national spotlight, rural jail incarceration was on an upward trajectory well before the recent crisis.
  • Rural jails have a more limited tax base than cities and experience resource challenges that contribute to their reliance on incarceration, including remote location of courts, scarce public defender services, and few diversion and pretrial services programs.
  • It is now common practice for jails to rent out extra beds to other jails, state prisons, or federal authorities. However, rural areas now use jail beds for other purposes at a rate 888% higher than in 1978, while rates in urban areas increased only 134%.
  • The expanded use of rented jail beds in rural counties is driven in part by financial incentives, as other agencies offer a per-diem rate for each incarcerated person held in a local jail that can help fill budget gaps or even be used to justify a jail expansion.

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