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Combating rising incarceration in rural areas

A rural county jailhouse.
Rising incarceration in rural county jails is an often-overlooked problem, according to WSU research. "The 1914 County Jail in Astoria" by willapalens is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

While big cities across the U.S. make progress toward reducing the number of people entering local jails, smaller cities and rural counties are experiencing an alarming rise in incarcerations.

Understanding the factors behind this shift and helping rural Washington communities overcome their justice system challenges is the goal of new grant-funded research by sociologists at Washington State University.

The Vera Institute of Justice awarded sociology professor Jennifer Schwartz and associate professor Jennifer Sherman, both at WSU Pullman, and professor Clayton Mosher at WSU Vancouver, a $200,000 grant to examine how state-level reforms, driven by the more urbanized western side of the state, interact with local dynamics in the more rural eastern side.

The researchers will pay particular attention to the region’s distinct populations, including agricultural and ranching communities, college-town communities, Native Americans and migrant farmworkers.

“Rising incarceration in rural county jails is an often-overlooked problem—it must be understood and addressed both nationally and locally,” Sherman said. “We’re thrilled to work with Vera at the forefront of this reform and look forward to continuing this much-needed work.”

The WSU research is part of Vera’s new Rural Jails Research and Policy Network, created with support from Arnold Ventures and in coordination with a project at the University of Georgia. Vera chose the two schools as project partners through a competitive process that included applications from university-based research teams across multiple disciplines.

WSU and UGA “stood out for their applied research skills, connections to rural communities in their states, and bold visions for sustaining research on rural justice issues,” Vera officials said. Rural counties in Washington and in Georgia “face significant and diverse challenges to reducing the reach and impact of mass incarceration,” they said.

The WSU project will focus on rural jurisdictions in eastern Washington with a diverse range of economies, populations, experiences and concerns. “The area encompasses most of the land within the state but only a fraction of its population,” Mosher said.

“It is common for residents in this area to feel that their voices are not well represented in state government,” Schwartz said. “So it is particularly important to focus on these rural counties, whose experiences and challenges are poorly understood and often overlooked at the state level. Our partner jurisdictions have expressed a strong need for a rural eastern Washington network that could share resources and advocate for their unique needs to be met, and they’re enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with us to create one.”

In Georgia, the project will address the uneven access to mental health services and the effects of expanded probation supervision in rural areas. Counties in southern Georgia are also relatively distant from state-level debates and have higher concentrations of African-American and Latinx populations.

During the 15-month project, the researchers plan to build a knowledge base of local jail and justice data and to engage local stakeholders in discussions and analyses of their systems. They anticipate facilitating collaborative, data-driven processes to generate possible solutions and policy decisions tailored to the specific needs of rural areas with long-term implementation in mind.

From their results, they hope to develop models for other rural jurisdictions seeking local solutions.

“We’re at an unprecedented time in our nation’s history where fixing our broken justice system is not only possible but, in some places, it has already become a reality,” said Nancy Fishman, Project Director at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “Looking ahead, it’s imperative that we empower and resource overlooked rural counties so they can implement locally tailored reforms.

“We’re thrilled to work with the teams at the University of Georgia and Washington State University to tackle this problem, bringing together those most involved in these rural local justice systems, and therefore ensuring that local leaders can make data-driven policy decisions that will help communities most in need.”

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