The Vera Institute of Justice has just released a comprehensive, urgent, and essential report on the growth of rural jails in America. "Of the 250 poorest counties, 213 of them are rural, representing locations with the most acute needs across the board," the report notes. And yet "relatively little is known about the inner workings of rural criminal justice systems and, specifically, how rural jails operate—their characteristics, the challenges they face, and the opportunities that exist for reform."
It's hard to overstate how glad I am that researchers have finally tackled this issue, which has "received scant attention," the report concludes, "because cities continue to be the focal point of both academic inquiry and policymaking.”
The report raises a diverse range of troubling issues, but I'll just highlight a few that are relevant to rural Arkansas jails:
- LIMITED DELIVERY OF JUSTICE. Due to the poverty and limited tax base, rural counties "often struggle to provide many services—such as education or healthcare—as well as fund and deliver justice, including recruiting key justice personnel and providing even the most basic criminal justice services necessary to process criminal cases through the system." These services include basic investigations by the police and prosecution.
- REMOTE LOCATIONS. Courts are spread out across vast amounts of land. "The distances that the few available personnel are often required to travel further frustrate case flow and efficient court operations, extending case processing times, despite comparatively lower overall caseload numbers."
- SHORTAGE OF SKILLED PRACTITIONERS. Rural counties "lack skilled practitioners—judges, prosecutors, investigators, public defenders, and court administrators—to run or oversee the basic functions of a local criminal justice system, posing serious operational challenges."
- INTENSELY LIMITED COURT DAYS. Court convened in Phillips County in four three-week sessions during the year. "In contrast, Manhattan’s arraignment courts, for example, are open for sessions from early morning until 1:00 am, every day of the week." In other words, when court isn't convened, the people arrested -- still innocent in the eyes of the law -- are sitting around, languishing, waiting months before arraignment. And it means that they've lost the jobs they had and are separated from families.
- FEW PRETRIAL SERVICE PROGRAMS or DIVERSION PROGRAMS. Resource-scarce counties don't have staff or tools to help make individualized assessments of people who are arrested. And rehabilitation, mental health, and education programs are rare.