Urban Wire Is jail growth only a plight in cities? How small and rural counties are tackling jail reform
Megan Russo, Marina Duane
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A version of this post appeared on the blog for the Safety and Justice Challenge on September 7, 2017.

On any given day, more than 730,000 people are incarcerated in more than 3,000 local jails across the United States. Although many people assume that high incarceration rates are concentrated in major cities, a report by the Vera Institute of Justice reveals that small and rural counties are one of the main drivers of jail growth across the country.

According to Vera’s report, small and rural counties often lack the resources and social services that could divert people from jail. But these counties are also dynamic incubators for change, poised to quickly bring multiple stakeholders together and foster collaboration.

With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, six small and rural counties joined the Safety and Justice Challenge as Innovation Fund sites to design and test new ideas to reduce incarceration. Through our work with these Innovation sites—Buncombe County, North Carolina; Campbell County, Tennessee; Deschutes County, Oregon; Durham County, North Carolina; Summit County, Ohio, and Yakima County, Washington—we can witness the challenges small jurisdictions face and how they overcome them.

Scarce resources leave little room for innovation and risk

Smaller sites have limited ability to start new programs and ensure their fidelity. Staffing, finding a location to host new programs, and securing funding beyond seed investments are major hurdles.

Campbell County, a rural jurisdiction in Tennessee, planned to incorporate a gender-responsive assessment and case planning tool. However, choices were limited to tools offered at a price the county could afford and trainings on how to use the tool at an accessible location without compromising quality. Campbell County overcame this barrier by exploring online tools with highly effective resources and trainings that fit the county’s timeline and budget restraints.

Another example is Deschutes County, Oregon, which is piloting a diversionary precharge program for people suspected of possessing a controlled substance. Deschutes had trouble staffing the program, finding a location to host meetings, and developing a triage center. Stakeholders collaborated to strategize other options, such as using a temporary space until they could find something more long term. As a result, Deschutes County developed an innovative program to divert people with substance abuse needs to more appropriate community treatment and has built a community that seeks to advance criminal justice reform.

Fewer community options for behavioral health treatment bring too many people to jail

Large and small communities struggle to stop the unnecessary incarceration of people with behavioral health needs. Because small and rural counties do not often have community alternatives, an overreliance on jail persists. Yakima County, Washington, is addressing this issue comprehensively by using the Sequential Intercept Model, a conceptual framework to address the community-wide interface between criminal justice and behavioral health systems.

Through this model, Yakima seeks to enhance its continuum of care for people with serious mental illness and expand its options to divert people at any point within the criminal justice system. This continuum will integrate current intervention options, such as the county’s dual-diagnosis court, behavioral health diversion, and pretrial services.

Buncombe County, North Carolina, has been successful with timely screening and assessment. The county relies on pretrial services and mental health and substance abuse counselors at the detention center to appropriately assess and diagnose people and divert them to community treatment. Such solutions are not yet scaled, but they are a step in the right direction and a signal to other similar-sized communities that something can and should be done about this pervasive issue.

Despite challenges, small and rural counties have a unique opportunity to effect positive criminal justice reform

Despite their vast and growing challenges, small and rural counties have a collaborative advantage to resolving issues in their criminal justice systems. Because of their size, they can often quickly bring multiple stakeholders to the table to make decisions and come to consensus. This also allows for better coordination, which can improve the way the system works for the people passing through it.

Campbell County set up biweekly meetings with key stakeholders, including corrections staff, the judiciary, and staff involved in the county’s drug courts, to discuss and build out the Women in Need Diversion program and promptly review cases at referral. Yakima did the same, pulling together key stakeholders from multiple departments and agencies to strategize the best way to link various county systems.

Perhaps the most important opportunity rural and small jurisdictions have is that their changemakers are members of these close-knit communities. They engage in community work from the ground up, creating change that is responsive to their residents’ needs. When someone has a stake in making their community better, reforms acquire a deeper sense of ownership and meaning. 


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Rural people and places
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center