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.
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.
This great piece on rural America by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg at the Wall Street Journal reflects more broadly the challenges that the Delta faces, in particular:
Lack of public transportation and childcare make it hard to hold down jobs. "Although federal and state antipoverty programs were not limited to urban areas, they often failed to address the realities of the rural poor. The 1996 welfare overhaul put more city dwellers back to work, for example, but didn’t take into account the lack of public transportation and child care that made it difficult for people in small towns to hold down jobs[.]"
Young people with talent leave rural areas. "In 1980, the median age of people in small towns and big cities almost matched. Today, the median age in small towns is about 41 years—five years above the median in big cities."
...And employers go where the young talent is. "In St. Louis, which has more than 30 nearby four-year schools, the percentage of residents with college degrees tripled between 1980 and 2015—creating a talent pool that has lured health care, finance and bioscience employers. Instead of people moving where the jobs are, 'jobs follow people,' said Greg Laposa, a local chamber of commerce vice president."
Hospitals shut down in rural areas, due to shortage of patients with employer-sponsored insurance. At least 79 rural hospitals have closed since 2010.
"Poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years."
I want to stress that "rural" does not mean white, a common mistake made by urbanites. One in five rural residents is a person of color. More than four of five new rural residents are people of color. And, since the days of slavery, the Arkansas Delta has been majority black.
A piece by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill on challenges confronting rural schools notes: "Only one in three eighth-grade rural students were proficient in math or reading, about where urban students scored and well below their suburban peers. While rural students are likely to graduate from high school, they lag far behind on every college indicator—applications, admission, attendance, readiness, grades, persistence, and graduation."
In rural Idaho: "Some communities that had lost their schools via consolidation have been able to regain them via chartering, and poorly staffed schools have been able to join together to provide better-resourced schools than any one could afford."
In Phillips County, Arkansas, one of the poorest areas in America, which ranks dead last in health predictors in Arkansas: "Local and state leaders worked to recruit KIPP to operate in Helena, and the effort has paid big dividends for the community and its children. According to community leader Chalk Mitchell, 'KIPP has helped to eliminate blight. ... The first new building constructed downtown in the last 30 or 40 years was the KIPP gymnasium.' KIPP is the largest employer in downtown Helena with more than 150 employees, including 70 teachers. The school draws students from farms and towns as far as an hour’s drive each way."
(This charter is where Patrick's daughter attends school now.)
Public charters get a bad rap in leftist circles, and as a lefty and former workers' rights lawyer, I totally get it. But I hope we can avoid applying an urban lens, with its range of assumptions, to a rural area. Worried about the absence of union protection for teachers? But unions were long ago decimated in rural areas, thanks to radical depopulation, gaping worker shortages,* and animus towards unions by red states. Worried about taking resources away from the traditional school? But the alternative, in a rural area, is often that the school is simply shut down: often it gets consolidated with another school that is fifteen, thirty miles away. That is the common and devastating reality for rural areas.
In the context of the Delta, I think it's powerful that African American parents, some who live some 60 miles away in remote towns, choose to bus their kids to the public charter. I view the parents' dedication to education as part of a long historical tradition in the Delta.
* To have a union, you must first have workers. And there are huge teacher shortages in rural areas like the Delta.
Good editorial by Sean Alexander in the Democrat Gazette about setting a national agenda on rural development:
"Arkansas should create a blueprint for a national rural development strategy. After all, Arkansas is a small rural state, which makes the task of coordinating development activities less challenging than in the national context. Moreover, our geography is diverse but representative: The Ozarks look a lot like the Appalachians, while the crippling poverty in the Arkansas Delta reflects the reality of many other Mississippi River counties.
Arkansas is also home to some of the best rural development organizations in the United States, including the UA's Cooperative Extension Services, the Delta Regional Authority, Southern Bancorp Inc., the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and many other private and nonprofit organizations."