New report charts the growth of rural jails in America

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 practitionersjudges, 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. 

 

Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas: Confronting the Lawyer Shortage

Access to legal services is an urgent problem facing rural areas. This important study by Lisa Pruitt, J. Cliff McKinney, and Bart Calhoun, "Justice in The Hinterlands," examines Arkansas as a case study of rural shortage.

What Deters Law Students from Rural Practice?

Students indicated lack of jobs and economic support; a lack of cultural amenities associated with urban living; and the challenge of finding a life partner in rural places. Students also "expressed very negative attitudes toward rural people, places, and practice. Recurring themes included an expectation of rural bias toward racial and sexual minorities and women; concerns about lack of anonymity in the community and lack of professionalism in the justice system; and a shortage of clients able to afford an attorney’s services."

What Might Attract Law Students to Rural Practice? The study found that "a critical mass—certainly enough to meet the need in Arkansas’s rural communities—indicated willingness to practice in a rural locale if provided fiscal and professional support," including student loan repayment assistance, mentoring, training in law practice management. 

Among other recommendations, the study advises that Arkansas "follow the lead of South Dakota and offer loan repayment assistance to attorneys who are willing to make a multi-year commitment to practice in an underserved rural area." In South Dakota, this has attracted interest: the program has doubled the size of its program in just two years.