One Solution to Rural Jail Budget Woes: Import Prisoners

Jail authorities in Iowa’s rural Wayne County have earned nearly $1 million by housing inmates from nearby counties. That’s helped fund some long-needed improvements in health care for inmates. 

Sheriff’s offices typically aren’t big on revenue generation. But in Iowa’s rural Wayne County, overflowing inmates from contiguous counties have been contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to local authorities’ justice budget–and in the process helping all of them cope with a burgeoning rural justice crisis.

The biggest customer? Nearby Lucas County, where locals opted to build a 24-hour holding facility instead of replacing their jail. Next is Appanoose County, where the jail struggles to hold even one-fourth of its inmate population.

The two counties have paid just shy of $1 million to Wayne County since 2009 to hold overflow inmates.

From July 2017 to June 2018, the most recently completed fiscal year, Wayne County collected $185,225 from the two counties. With a budget of around $1.7 million per year, money from housing other county’s inmates covered about 11 percent of the budget.

Appanoose and Lucas counties represent just the most frequent customers at the Wayne County jail. They hold other inmates, as well, including some from Warren County while the county builds its newly approved jail.

Wayne County, located in southern Iowa, is the fifth least populous county in the state

Wayne County could, in theory, earn more if Sheriff Keith Davis desired to.

But the southern Iowa sheriff Davis said he keeps the cost fair. Some jails elsewhere in the state can charge $75 per day for each inmate, if not more. Wayne’s daily rate is nearly half that.

Wayne County’s jail capacity, now at 31 beds following an expansion about five years ago that added eight beds (referred to by a sign as Appanoose County West), is the maximum their current site can hold. Davis said citizens wanted their new law center to be built on the square, thus the facility is largely land-locked in terms of future expansion space.

Projections of Wayne County’s own inmate population predicted they would need those 31 beds by the time the facility’s 20th birthday rolled around. And the county’s jail population is indeed growing.

Partially due to the influx of cash from holding other county’s inmates, the sheriff’s office has added another deputy. Plus, last year they took over law enforcement in Corydon as the city disbanded its police department. The younger deputies hired since then are arresting more people, Davis said.

Davis said the jail wasn’t constructed as a revenue generator, but project leaders knew that would be a possibility. Holding excess inmates allowed them to open up the expansion wing of eight additional beds earlier than scheduled without needing to pass an additional bond.

The money can’t be traced to specific projects but sending thousands of dollars back to the county’s general fund each month makes it easier to convince the Wayne County Board of Supervisors to fund Davis’ priorities.

“It makes it easier for me to go to the board and say, ‘Hey, I want this,’ or, ‘I need this,’” Davis said.

Last year, Davis paid $770,000 back to Wayne County, between inmate holding revenues and excess collections from local option sales tax that funded their jail construction.

“That’s a pretty good chunk of our budget that we actually return to them,” Davis said.

The county has also been able to save money on medical and mental health services since a larger inmate pool allows them cheaper rates for those services.

“Our medical bills were killing us,” Davis said.

They now have a doctor on call around the clock, which has saved several inmate trips to the local emergency room. They also have nurses that make rounds three times per week.

Regional Jail Plans Stall

 In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, local counties including Appanoose and Wayne were attempting to band together to replace their jails with a larger regional one, big enough to house everyone’s prisoners.

It was recommended then, according to past stories in the Daily Iowegian, that a 144-bed jail be built with future expansion possible to 200 beds. It was anticipated to be enough to hold a six-county area of inmates until at least 2030.

A study completed in December 1999 found that six counties — Appanoose, Davis, Decatur, Lucas, Monroe and Wayne — could save money by jointly merging efforts to construct the jail.

In June 2000 a $150,000 grant was awarded to develop a strategic plan for the project.

The project stalled, however. Money expected from the state fell through, sidelining the project at the time. Prospects of a regional jail are dead, now.

Of the six counties involved, Appanoose is the only one that hasn’t had new construction.

Wayne, Monroe, Davis and Decatur counties have constructed new jails in the past decade, with a total bed count of roughly 105 between them. Lucas County opted to go with a holding facility, meaning inmates kept longer than 24 hours must be farmed out.

Appanoose County’s inmate population has continued to grow, averaging 22.4 inmates in custody per day and about two new inmates booked every day in 2017.

But two bond referendums to build larger facilities have failed to get the necessary support from Appanoose County residents, the biggest objection appearing to be that the bonds would be funded from property taxes

Additionally, the average stay by Appanoose County inmates is up just in the past five years. In 2014, the average inmate would stay in jail for about 8.4 days. In the first nine months of 2018, that average was sitting at 12.4 days per stay.

New Jail, Empty Beds

On May 5, 2015, voters in Davis County widely approved the construction of a new, 28-bed jail and law center. That same day, the county’s more than 40-year-old jail held just four inmates.

That wasn’t a fluke, from 2012 until the new jail was opened in 2017, the average number of inmates bounced between four and five most days. According to the daily counts reported to the state, and obtained and analyzed by the Daily Iowegian, there were many times in 2015 the jail sat empty.

In 2017, Davis County’s inmate population suddenly jumped, consistently hitting double digits. The new jail that voters approved in 2015 was open, and beds were being filled by inmates from outside the county.

Many of those inmates are coming from neighboring Appanoose County, which averages a daily population roughly triple what its jail can hold legally. The jail, which can hold nine inmates at a time, sits in a county that has been responsible for as many as 38 inmates at a time.

When Davis County was studying the issue, a report showed crumbling structures at its old facility. The building that housed the county’s law enforcement was repurposed from an 1892 building. In 1972, the jail was moved to what had been the water treatment plant on site from its former location beneath the county courthouse.

Among the biggest reasons for the new construction was these building and space issues for both the jail and law enforcement officers.

From 2012 through 2017, Davis County averaged roughly 4.7 inmates a day, though that number had spiked once to 13.

Those who studied the new Davis County Law Center and jail saw a history of population that remained relatively flat year to year. Their projections were based on the unlikelihood that would continue, citing nearby counties that are experiencing ballooning population.

Based on that and a modest five percent growth each year for the next 20 years, project leaders predicted by 2027 the jail would have 15 inmates of its own each day.

In the meantime, Davis County will, like other area counties, benefit from holding Appanoose County’s overpopulated inmates.

Additional reading: Rural (In) Justice: The Crisis in America’s Rural Jails

Kyle Ocker, editor of the Daily Iowegian, is a 2018 John Jay/Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an edited and slightly condensed version of the first of a series of articles on the rural jail crisis written as part of his fellowship project. The full article is available here.


For the Mentally Troubled, a Pennsylvania Jail Offers ‘High-Visibility’ Cells

Butler County, Pa., jail authorities have set aside special cells, some of them padded, for inmates whose behavior renders them unfit for the general population. But they concede this doesn’t address the real needs of individuals who find scant help in the outside world.

As director of nursing at the health unit of Pennsylvania’s Butler County jail, Ashley Adams offers one of the few resources in the county for people suffering from disabling illnesses of the mind.

She remembers one young man who was an inmate of the prison from August to December.

“He didn’t belong here,” Adams said, explaining that he was originally a patient at Butler Memorial Hospital and suffered from a bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The hospital couldn’t offer him long-term care and when they demanded he leave, the young man refused, prompting hospital officials to call the police.

Adams said the man became so agitated by the time the police arrived that he hit the officers. He was eventually sentenced to a jail term for aggravated assault.

“We’re dealing with an underserved population,” Adams said. “They are just people too, but they need help; they need medical care.”

Ten years after Butler County Prison was built, officials continue to look for ways to deal with inmates suffering from mental health issues, a task that isn’t inherent to a system tasked with punishment, not therapy.

There are anywhere from 75 to 100 inmates—more than 30 percent of the jail’s population— who are on Ashley Adams’ health “radar.”

Adams, a health services administrator and registered nurse with the jail, said that these people could be suffering from a variety of conditions, from a mild anxiety disorder to a serious mental health diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

The problem is not specific to Butler, according to researchers and criminal justice experts. Nationally, mental illness affects men and women in jail at rates four to six times higher than in the general population.

“In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help,” according to one study by the National Alliance for Mental Health.

“As a result, two million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.”

Special Cells

In Butler, if an inmate suffering from a mental health issue becomes disruptive or aggressive, the most immediate response is to put him or her in cells specially designed for high visibility so that inmates can’t hurt themselves, said Beau Sneddon, the jail’s deputy warden of operations.

“We have a lot of people here with mental health problems so that’s something we deal with regularly,” Sneddon said. “We’ve learned so much about what their needs are, and we’ve educated our corrections officers.

“Most importantly, they have the will to do it. It helps lower incidents.”

But this does little for an inmate’s long-term recovery. Once they are no longer causing trouble, Adams said they have little choice other than putting them back in the jail’s general population or keeping them in the special cells.

“These individuals often do not do well in the general population at the prison,” Adams wrote in an email, arguing that a special area for them be designated.

“Having this space would greatly improve our abilities to assist in rehabilitating them while they are incarcerated.”

She noted that with the jail’s inmate population currently at 259, there is enough space in a jail that has a capacity of more than 500 to create a dedicated space for people in the midst of a mental health crisis, something they do not have.

Instead, the health unit has 10 cells that provide high visibility of the jailed inmate allowing jail attendants to ensure they don’t harm themselves. There are also three padded cells for special cases.

“For humanitarian reasons we try to get them out of there as soon as possible,” she said, explaining that the padded cells aren’t outfitted for long-term use as they don’t have beds or a toilet.

“But it becomes a problem when we have to keep them in there for a long time.”

She continued, “My biggest goals for the mental health side of things would be an on-site provider as well as a greater capacity for housing inmates meeting mental health diagnosis criteria in a different setting than our medical infirmary.

mental health

At least 2 million people with mental illnesses are booked into facilities like the Butler County jail each year. Photo by Eric Jankiewicz.

More high-visibility cells would be great — as an intermediate step between general housing and a padded suicide- prevention type of cell.”

Currently, she said, if an inmate who has been in a padded cell for a long time isn’t ready to be put in a high visibility cell then they will try and send him o a medical facility.

“This is where we’ve hit roadblocks,” she said, explaining that inmates “are low priority since they have a limited number of psychiatric beds.”

A dedicated unit would remove a need for outside facilities.

Last year, jail officials floated the idea of creating a crisis intervention center by repurposing an area of the prison known as the pit, that currently has just a few cells and a row of chairs.

During a December meeting where Warden Joe DeMore mentioned the idea, the county’s commissioners appeared willing to consider such a move.

Jails No Solution for the Mentally Troubled

But Travis Parker, a senior criminal justice expert with Policy Research Inc., based in Lincoln, Neb., said that jails are not the ultimate solution in treating mental illness.

“Jail is not the place to get rehabilitation or services of any kind,” Parker said.

He suggested instead that local police departments maintain local crisis response teams that include officers who are trained to deal with people who are suffering some kind of mental breakdown.

Parker himself works part-time for a mobile crisis response team for law enforcement and jails in the 15 rural counties surrounding Lincoln, spending “a great deal of time” in counties not unlike Butler.

He also suggested a regional triage center devoted to dealing with people who would be better served by treatment instead of jailing.

“These units are intended to have law enforcement friendly policies where an officer drops somebody off and can leave the person at the center,” he said.

Jails, he said, should be used for people who “commit violent offenses, heinous crimes, and regardless of their mental health status they should be incarcerated.”

Currently, Adams noted that incoming inmates to Butler County Prison are assessed and, if needed, referred to Cindy McCrea for help.

McCrea works for Wexford Health Services, a third-party health care provider that specializes in jail health care.

But this treatment is limited since the jail doesn’t have an on-site psychiatrist, Adams said. Instead, the jail offers webcam sessions with off-site doctors who can order psychiatric medication if needed, Adams said.

Treatment Courts Provide Alternatives to Jail

Butler’s number of inmates is the lowest it has been in more than a decade. And in an attempt to reduce the number of jailed people suffering from mental health illnesses, Butler County’s legal structure offers three “specialty” courts that provide alternatives to jail.

One of the courts, Behavioral Health Court, is designed for people with varying diagnoses of mental illness. Instead of being jailed they are given treatment and tools for rehabilitation and readjustment.

But the program has its limitations. In total, 12 people have graduated from the Behavioral Health Court since 2015, when the program started.

At the end of February another two will graduate, according to Erin McGarrity, who works with Adult Probation and Parole and is a Behavioral Health Court officer.

Parker said that treatment courts can be helpful in preventing people from committing further crimes but they are limited by their ability to prevent people from turning to crime in the first place.

“I’m certainly a fan of treatment courts,” he said. “The idea of treatment court is it’s pretty intensive and graduates only a few people a year. Often times what we see is that a person will spend 24 months before they’re released of their charges.”

Getting into Behavioral Health Court, which started in 2015, requires a defendant to apply for it, much like a job application.

The process begins with a referral and then a court case manager with the specialty court will consult with McGarrity and the applicant to see if the defendant will be accepted. The requirements for Behavioral Health Court are numerous, including a willingness to accept the treatment.

McGarrity said she understands criticism of the specialty courts not being accepting enough.

“Sometimes, yes, the individual has a mental health illness issue, but the program is designed for those who have the highest risk, the highest need and the capability of being successful in the program,” McGarrity said.

And alternatively, “Sometimes people are too sick and too mentally ill to meet the expectations of the program,” McGarrity said.

Those who are accepted must plead guilty to a number of agreed upon charges. They are also put on a harsher plea deal that will be used if they fail out of the program. The District Attorney’s office must also agree to the deal.

“It’s much harsher,” McGarrity said about the plea deals they have to accept if they fail out.

“It’s usually a more serious sentence than if they just went the regular court route. So it’s usually a prison sentence.”

McGarrity noted that the other two courts, Drug Treatment and Veterans, deal with defendants suffering from mental health issues, too.

“Every single treatment court has participants in them that also have mental illnesses,” McGarrity said. “People who we take generally have a lengthy history with mental illness”

For Drug Treatment Court, which started in 2011, there are a total of 37 graduates. And in Veterans Court, which started in 2012, there are a total of 33 graduates.

Butler County criminal lawyer Dennis McCurdy said he likes the idea of the specialty courts but “my experience with the specialty court is a lot of rejection. The specialty court needs to take five to six times more people.”

“There needs to be a broader acceptance of candidates,” McCurdy said. “we’re filling the prisons with people who have mental health issues and that helps no one. We’ve turned cops into mental health first-responders and jails into last and final responses.”

Adams hopes that, ultimately, inmates with serious mental health problems have some place other to go other than jails, noting that she is part of a countywide committee involved in “Stepping Up,” a national organization devoted to reducing the number of mentally ill people being put in jail.

More than 425 counties, including Butler, have passed a resolution or proclamation to participate in the initiative, according to information provided by the organization.

Participation allows counties to gain support from public and private entities and the initiative builds on the many innovative and proven practices being implemented across the country.

“The challenge right now is having an appropriate place to divert them to — such as forensic beds in hospitals, psychiatric hospitals/treatment centers and long-term structured rehab type settings,” she wrote in an email.

Eric Jankiewicz, a former Crime Report news intern, is a staff writer for the Butler Eagle and a 2018 Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of the second in an occasional series of articles on the county jail. The complete version is available here.


Life After Prison: Nebraska’s ‘Growing Pains” With Probation Reform

Nebraska began shifting more inmates into stricter post-release supervision regimes to relieve prison overcrowding after legislators passed a sentencing reform package in 2015. But it’s added a new burden to already-stressed local jails and courts.

In 2018, the justice system in Nebraska’s Dodge County found itself navigating a new responsibility: rehabilitating individuals returning from the state prison system.

Hundreds of ex-offenders completing prison sentences were returning home. But for many, prison was the easy part. The real challenge was just starting. Now, many were embarking on the second part of their sentence, which would be served within their communities.

Beginning in 2015, prison sentences on class III, IIIA and IV felonies started to include a mandatory sentence of “post-release supervision,” an intensive rehabilitative probation program that requires offenders to pursue services after prison in hopes of keeping them out for good.

But county officials say the sentencing change has had consequences on offenders and local justice systems alike.

It shifted a new class of higher-risk felony offenders onto new and demanding regimens of supervision. And it shifted the burden of supervising them from the state to the counties.

“The rehabilitative process falls back on the probation office and the county attorney’s office and the courts, because when people come back in the community from their prison sentence, they have to report to probation and they begin their term of PRS,” said Dodge County Attorney Oliver Glass.

Post-release supervision was created as part of a package of reforms passed in the 2015 criminal justice reform law known as LB605. The law also created a “presumption of probation” directing judges to put offenders on probation on most class IV felony cases, which led to an increase in community-based probation sentences in lieu of prison.

The law took aim at the state’s overcrowded prison system, then at 159 percent capacity and now under mandate to make significant reductions by 2020.

High Volumes, Limited Resources

But it also put more individuals into community services that are already dealing with high volumes and limited resources. And it put local justice systems in charge of an increasing number of individuals who face legal repercussions for violating the terms of their probation or post-release supervision.

That brings more cases before an already-crowded court docket, and potentially more inmates into a rapidly growing jail population housed in Saunders County.

“Probation now has all these people they have to deal with, either through presumption or post-release supervision,” said District Court Judge Geoffrey Hall.

“I know that the court system has been efforting to ramp up, but it takes time, effort and dollars, so it’s a burden on the system.”

Last year was Dodge County District Court’s busiest caseload on record. In 2018, the court saw 891 filings, the most since at least 2007 and up from 766 in 2015, according to the Nebraska Judicial Branch.

Felony probation and post-release supervision contributed to that growth. In 2018, there were 50 motions to revoke probation or post-release supervision filed in Dodge County District Court, according to the district court clerk’s office. In 2017, there were only 13, and in 2015, there were only three.

Hall has previously expressed frustration with the large number of motions to revoke post-release supervision being filed in court.

“These people get in trouble, I have to issue an arrest warrant, they get court-appointed attorneys and they spend time in jail and many of them don’t seem to be inclined to change their ways,” Hall told the Tribune in an October interview.

An individual may violate their probation or supervision by committing a new crime, but may also receive sanctions for things like missing classes, testing positive for drugs or alcohol, or missing scheduled drug tests. Punishments can include administrative sanctions, like additional classes, or custodial sanctions — short bursts of county jail time that rarely last more than a few weeks.

A motion to revoke felony probation or post-release supervision can be filed in court if a probationer has amassed 90 days’ worth of custodial sanctions, committed a new crime, or absconded. Once a motion is filed, that will bring the individual back before the court and could place them in jail as their case progresses.

If revoked, a probationer could be incarcerated in either prison or jail to serve out the remainder of their time. But data released by the state’s Office of Probation Administration in November shows that burden is increasingly falling on county jails.

In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, 57 percent of all individuals revoked from felony probation and post-release supervision in the state were sent back to prison, compared to 43 percent to the county jails. This past fiscal year, those numbers reversed: prisons housed 37 percent of revoked probationers, while jails housed 63 percent.

Seventy percent of traditional probationers successfully complete probation, according to statewide data. Only 35 percent of discharges from post-release supervision last year were successful. Another 32 percent were classified as “unsuccessful completion,” where they were not revoked but failed to fulfill all the requirements. And another 32 percent were revoked.

Even those who were discharged successfully may have faced custodial sanctions at some point in their term. — there were 1,795 custodial sanctions issued statewide last year, up from 1,056 the year before.

Many, Hall and Glass included, see the value of LB605, and understand the state’s need to find solutions to its prison conundrum.

‘Change is Hard’

“It’s very expensive to house prisoners, and I think history would show it’s probably not always the best way to deal with, especially, non-violent crime,” Hall said. “Change is hard, and with change comes issues, and I think we’re in that process right now.”

Patty Lyon, chief probation officer for District 6 office, the local arm of the state probation agency, is hopeful that the system will help offenders in the long run by giving them the tools to keep them from re-offending — ultimately improving community safety. Additionally, the state probation office notes that keeping people on probation has a significantly lower price tag than keeping them in prisons.

But the new law has created some “growing pains” for counties, she acknowledged.

Previously, the only system of post-incarceral supervision in Nebraska was parole. But parole violators were sent back to prison — not jail — and the supervision was less intense or rehabilitative than probation or post-release supervision.

And because parole is only granted to prisoners who are released before they’d served their maximum prison time, many prisoners avoided it entirely by choosing to stay in prison for their entire sentence, a practice known as “jamming out,” meaning that they’d be released without any supervision.

By design, the probation system is dealing with a higher-risk population that traditionally received prison time and often avoided community supervision. But even in cases where they aren’t successful, those individuals are getting services that they’ve never had before. The state probation office says that research shows such supports can help reduce recidivism in the long run.

“These are participants that never had [PRS] before and in many cases don’t want it,” Lyon said. “But those are also the individuals that once they accept the program, or accept what’s being offered to them, they can make huge changes, too.”

Among the biggest challenges in compliance with post-release supervision is getting offenders to buy into it once they leave prison. Often, they see it as a second punishment.

“A lot of guys and gals that’s on that post-release supervision, they really resent it,” said Jim Jones of the Lincoln-based Community Justice Center, which works with ex-offenders returning to the community.

Chelsea Burk understands the feeling. The Lincoln native and mother of two is currently serving yearlong post-release supervision out of Lancaster County, after completing a prison sentence on a 2016 charge of possessing methamphetamine. She left prison in July — serving only nine months of her 18-month sentence after receiving good time — with a new lease on life: sober and with money saved up from a work-release program.

Her post-release supervision sentence was more daunting than her prison sentence, she says. She was required to maintain employment while also attending early morning classes and drug tests three times a week that wouldn’t allow her to be even a minute late. She couldn’t associate with people who had criminal records, ruling out just about everybody she knew. She felt lonely and anxious.

Since September, Burk has made significant strides, remaining sober and employed, making new friends and reconnecting with her family in North Platte. But early on, overcome with loneliness and anxiety, Burk relapsed. She felt overwhelmed and started to miss classes and drug tests. She served two custodial sanctions of five and 15 days, and the fear of losing all the gains she’d made in prison drove her to do better.

But while she believes that the strict regimen is necessary to get through to offenders, she also notes that probationers may face a slew of challenges that require more flexibility from the system: a lack of reliable transportation to get to mandatory appointments on time, unexpected changes in probation officers, mental health issues and substance abuse relapses.

Some probationers, she says, “can’t fathom” maintaining the demanding schedule that probation requires, and often leave prison without the supports necessary to help them.

“People that go to prison, there’s an underlying factor to what happened, and a lot of times it’s mental health, and sometimes it’s the substance abuse that’s deteriorated mental health,” she said.

“This is an uncomfortable, icky feeling to be out here doing things by myself. If you don’t know that that’s coming, it’s going to cause some problems — it’s going to cause you to end up right back in court.”

Dodge County, with an average daily jail population that has grown from 61 to 81 since 2012, is not alone in seeing new strains on its justice system. Nationally, pretrial incarceration rates in rural county jails have increased 436 percent between 1970 and 2013, according to the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

The consequences of mass incarceration are often felt more acutely at the local level, where there are fewer resources and less space to accommodate growing volume, says Jasmine Heiss, the director of outreach and public affairs for Vera’s “In Our Backyards” project, which studies incarceration trends.

Sentencing reforms have played a role in driving jail growth nationwide, Heiss said.

That’s because probation, seen by lawmakers as an enticing alternative to incarceration in states with overcrowded facilities, often simply becomes a nebulous extension of the incarceral system.

Officials should use discretion when deciding which violations trigger an incarceral response, she said. Glass noted that his office is working to do that, and communication with Lyon’s district 6 office on finding other solutions is ongoing.

“These systems just create a tripwire for people to go back into [incarceral] systems,” Heiss said.

James Farrell, a staff writer for the Fremont Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This article was written as part of his fellowship project. The complete version can be accessed here.


Incarceration Data Reveals ‘Sharp Urban-Rural Divide’ Across US

Sharp disparities between the imprisonment rates of urban and rural Americans illustrate the “new dynamics of mass incarceration” in the U.S., the Vera Institute of Justice said Friday.

Sharp disparities between the imprisonment rates of urban and rural Americans illustrate the “new dynamics of mass incarceration” in the U.S., the Vera Institute of Justice said Friday.

Vera released the latest data from a new tool exploring incarcerations trends, that drills down into prison admission and incarceration rates at the county level, with breakdowns by race and gender, based on 2015 figures.

“The (data) reveal an important truth,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach and public affairs strategist for Vera, in a statement accompanying the report.

“The problem of mass incarceration is in all our backyards.”

The new data shows, for example, that Broome County, a rural region in upstate New York with about 200, 000 residents, sends people to state prison at a rate 45 percent higher than New York City.

Similarly, although the jail population in Oakland, Ca., and the surrounding Alameda County, CA, declined 33 percent between 2011 and 2015, the number of jail inmates in suburban region of San Bernardino increased 20 percent in the same period.

The figures underline what many have already noted as a “rural jail crisis” of overcrowded and outdated facilities, much of it caused by the increase in mentally ill or substance-abuser populations driven by the nation’s opioid epidemic.

The data also showed a sharp racial disparity in New York City, which has experienced some of the deepest and longest sustained reductions in crime, as well as jail populations.

In 2015, African-Americans were jailed in New York City at over ten times the rate of whites—and Latinx at five times the rate, Vera said.

What Vera described as the “sharp urban-suburban divide” in incarceration trends across the U.S. raises serious challenges for policymakers.

Travis County, Tex., where the upscale university and high tech community of Austin is located, saw a reduction of 23 percent in individuals sent to state prison between 2011 and 2015. But in rural McCulloch County, the geographical heart of Texas, the prison incarceration rate increased by more than 45 percent over the same period.

“In McCulloch County, 2.5 percent of working age males were absent from the county in 2015 because they were in the state prison system,” the Vera report said.

The full dataset available is available for download directly from Vera’s Incarceration Trends Project here.


How One Rural Indiana Jail Deals with Its “Exploding”Female Population

With growing numbers of women incarcerated around the country, some local authorities are developing innovative programs to help ensure they never return once they’re released. Floyd County in southern Indiana opened a jail-based counseling unit this year that appears to hold promise.

Is there a better way to address the growing numbers of women who find themselves in jail?

One southern Indiana county has developed a program aimed at helping women—including those who have recidivated—gain the tools, skills and confidence to make their current stay behind bars the last one.

The program is the brainchild of Floyd County Sheriff Lt. Brett O’Loughlin and Michelle Cochran, a mental health worker contracted by the jail.

At the beginning of this year, the jail opened a separate block with room for 16 inmates who are committed to focusing on themselves, addressing their addiction issues, and supporting one another in their growth.

And some of the women inmates say it has already put them in the right direction.

“It teaches you how to change your thinking, which is where we all mess up,” said Heather Goff, who’s been in the Floyd County jail for almost a year and a half, and in the program for eight months.

“I was sober for nine years. Since I’ve been locked up, I’ve had time to reflect on where I went wrong and recognize how not to do it again.”

According to Cochran, the recent increase in the number of women in Floyd County jail — largely due to drug issues or drug-related crimes — makes it more important than ever to develop and maintain meaningful programming for them.

“So we started putting it together building a curriculum [with] evidence-based practice,” Cochran said.

The jail has recently been awarded a grant to expand the program to men; she said they started with the women because “that population seemed to explode in a very short amount of time.”

The women in the “program dorm” are given more freedoms and responsibility than those in the general block, and have access to more programming — like specialized classes and yoga.

Coordinators work with them to help hone in on the personal life issues that led to their brush with the law, and to help cut recidivism.

According to Lt. O’Loughlin, programs in other jails around the country are often limited to basics: 12-step program meetings or faith-based programs. While those can be useful, he said, they can lack the more personal focus the new Floyd County program offers.

“Every facility has some type of program, but it ends up being they try to cram everybody into that one-size-fits all,” he said. “They’re just spinning their wheels and the same people keep coming back.

“[This program is] not going to be a one-size-fits all. We’re going to throw everything we can at it and see what sticks.”

Each week, the women draw lots to see which jobs they’ll have for the week — they could serve as a mediator to help sort out interpersonal issues among the inmates, or they could facilitate weekly programming, enforce chores getting done or keep track of records within the program.

“This program means a lot to me because this is the first time that I’m addressing that I have a problem and I am an addict,” Mercedes Hall said. “And that means a lot to … my family. This is the first time in my life I’ve actually had structure and consistency.”

In Floyd County, the average daily female population has nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017 to 59 from 35, a rise that local law enforcement authorities attribute to the drug crisis that’s shaken Southern Indiana in the past several years.

The growth of the male inmate population has been more steady during that time in Floyd County.

Nearby Clark County law enforcement officials have seen similar growth, rising to an average daily female population of 131 in 2017, up from 56 in 2007.

Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel says the growth in numbers comes with challenges to spacing and increased health costs associated with women. On a recent day in Clark County, there were eight pregnant women in jail.

In 2016, Clark County initiated three new programs targeted specifically to address the needs of the growing female population.

A 12-week writing workshop, taught by local freelance journalist Amanda Beam, is designed to help women express themselves through written words. There is a separate group for women who are victims of physical, mental or sexual abuse, to help pave the way for them to become empowered survivors.

There’s also a pregnancy class for women who are, or believe they may be, pregnant.

“The more tools you can give an inmate, especially a female inmate, hopefully [means] they won’t return to jail and that’s what’s best for the family,” Noel said.


Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop says a new jail program started this year specifically for women gives them the chance to break through the old thought patterns and habits, to help prevent them from returning to jail. Photo by Aprile Rickert, News and Tribune .

In Floyd County, nearly all of the women in the program said they have been incarcerated multiple times, and most are currently in for drug-related charges.

“Even if their charge isn’t a drug charge, it’s usually drug-related,” program member Goff said. “Whatever they’ve done, it was to get drugs.”

Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop said the program can change the course of a woman’s life — to keep her from falling into the old ways before jail.

Often, they end up in jail again soon because “they go back to the same environment they had,” Loop said. “The same friends, because they don’t know anything else.”

Cassidy Miller’s story lines up with this.

Miller, who has been in jail multiple times, admitted she intentionally courted arrest because she knew she needed a change from the life she was living on the outside.

“I was doing everything right on the outside [but] everything was still screwing up,” she said. “I was very, very tired, and I knew I wanted something different.

“We’re all just tired of that life. We want something different and this is the first step to that.”

While some jail opportunities, like receiving a GED or other certifications can mean credit off of their sentence, this is not the case with the new Floyd County program.

Cochran, the mental health worker, said this helps ensure that everyone in the program is there because they want to be, and because they’re committed to doing the work.

Because the women are housed in a separate dorm, they’re not around the negative influences of others in jail who aren’t ready or don’t wish to try to change, Cochran said.

The program effectively begins as soon as the women enter the dedicated block.

“[We ask] ‘what are your goals, what are you going to do different, where are you going to be that’s safe when you leave here,'” she said.

Program participant Miller said living in the dorm creates a sense of solidarity and mutual concern among the inmates.

“In here, we call each other on our B.S.,” she said. “Or if we’re thinking something wrong or we’re down on ourselves, we check ourselves and each other because we care enough to see everybody do well.”

Another inmate, Joanie Watson, recently received a certificate for completing a class that she helped show her that progress was possible.

“It’s a confidence boost, even doing your homework is a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “Something little you accomplished and something bigger and it just builds up.”

But the hardest challenge may come when the inmates are released.

The county Sheriff’s Department and staff say they are working to increase partnerships with community organizations who will be available for continued post-incarceration health and addiction care.

“That’s how we’re going to prevent recidivism,” Cochran said.

Aprile Ricket

Aprile Rickert

“That’s how we’re going to keep them clean, keep them sober and keep them medicated.”

Aprile Rickert, a crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in the News and Tribune as part of her Fellowship project. Follow Aprile on Twitter: @Aperoll27. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Rural Jails Struggle to Cope with Rise in Mentally Troubled Inmates

The growing population of offenders with mental health or substance abuse issues is a nationwide problem, but it’s especially challenging in rural communities. One Wisconsin jail has risen to the challenge.

When someone is booked into Polk County jail in rural Wisconsin, the first step is a screening process to determine the individual’s medical and mental health care needs. The information from that screen is reviewed by the jail nurse and jail sergeant, who determine if the jail nurse needs to follow up.

Once in the general jail population, the inmate can submit a nurse call slip for non-emergency mental health concerns, and the nurse or jail staff member will follow up as needed. An urgent mental health need is handled through a request by call slip to a nurse or staff on regular rounds.

Many big-city jails, which are now the main source of medical help and counseling for the mentally ill, have used similar strategies to deal with a growing roster of inmates who need special medical help.  But the approach has now spread to smaller rural jails in states like Wisconsin.

“Our jail staff is excellent in recognizing symptoms of mental health and of untreated mental health issues, notifying me, and addressing those issues,” said Donna Johnson, the Polk County public health nurse, who has worked in the county jail for 20 years.

Rural jails often bear the brunt of what has become a growing national problem. A 2016 survey of 230 jail staff members across 39 states found that 96 percent reported having inmates with serious mental illnesses during the previous year.

Three-quarters of the jails reported seeing more or far more seriously mentally ill inmates compared to five to 10 years ago.

More than 80 percent of people incarcerated in the Polk County Jail have mental health needs, according to Johnson.

“For the people we’re seeing with serious and pervasive mental health issues in the jail setting, methamphetamine (addiction) is by far the greatest issue that we’re dealing with,” she said.

According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),  the toxic effects of substances can mimic mental illness in ways that can be difficult to distinguish from mental illnesses.

Substance-induced mental health disorders involve psychiatric symptoms that are caused by using a substance. People can also have co-occurring mental disorders, where they have a mental illness and a substance use disorder.


The 160-bed Polk County Jail in rural Wisconsin has seen a rise in inmates suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. Photo courtesy Leader-Register.

Rob Drew, captain of the Polk County Jail, estimates that around 70 percent of the county jail’s inmate population would benefit from some type of mental health care, be it from a counseling session or meeting with a psychologist.

“We have a fairly low number of people that rise to the level of being suicidal, but the number of people that could benefit from general mental health services is very high,” said Drew, who oversees the county’s 160-bed jail.

Drew said it is difficult to calculate the specific amount of people in jail with mental health needs due to the variation in inmate mental health needs, which aren’t tracked with jail records.

Polk County’s Johnson says that the mental health of those in the county jail has always been a concern, but it has dramatically changed over the years.

“It used to be a rare occasion when we had someone who displayed [suicidal tendencies] … (and was in need of) psychiatric services,” said Johnson.  “Now it is really the norm,”

Looking back to the first methamphetamine epidemic that occurred about 20 years ago, Johnson says that they had people in the jail displaying acutely psychotic behavior where they experienced both auditory and visual hallucinations.

“We see that on a chronic basis now,” said Johnson, who believes the mental health issues the county is experiencing right now are largely due to methamphetamine and alcohol use.

“Alcohol remains our Number One issue,” said Johnson. “It (alcohol) doesn’t get as much attention because it’s legal.”

The American Psychiatric Association reports that chronic heavy methamphetamine use can cause temporary paranoid delusional states that may last for weeks, months and even years. Symptoms can also include dementia, psychotic episodes, and evidence of “bipolar” disorder.

Heavy long-term alcohol use can cause brain damage that causes symptoms of dementia that are not entirely reversible even with sobriety.

However, most substance-induced symptoms begin to improve within hours or days after substance use has stopped.

In 2017 the Leader-Register reported that Polk County leads the state of Wisconsin in per capita criminal prosecutions of methamphetamine. That year there were 184 individuals arrested for methamphetamine alone with 393 drug charges against them.

The Polk County behavioral health unit pychiatrist, Dr. James Rugowski, visits the jail once a month for about five hours to handle medication assessment, management and to assess individuals’ mental health needs.

Crisis workers connect incarcerated individuals with behavioral health services before they are released from jail, so there is a continuation of care. Before their release individuals who are identified in need get help processing their (medical assistance) BadgerCare application from a county health department staff member.

“When they walk out of the jail doors, they can have their BadgerCare application already processed so they have insurance to cover their mental health services, medications and medical needs,” said Johnson.

Stark and Johnson also provide suicide and mental health training to jail staff.

“From administration all the way down to the line staff, we all strongly believe that it’s equally as important to care for [inmates’] mental health as it is to care for their physical health,” said Johnson.

The county offers a crisis call line through Northwest Connections, a third-party organization contracted by the county’s mental health unit to handle the county’s crisis call work. This allows the county 24/7, 365-day coverage for crisis calls and is used in the jail.

“The officer can bring the inmate to the phone and give the call taker a synopsis of what’s going on and the inmate will speak to the crisis call person and they determine the appropriate care for them,” said Drew.

Challenges they still face include serving non-county residents, and a lack of resources for proactive care and the continuation of care outside of jail.

“I do think we are doing a really good job of managing what we have with the resources that we have available,” said Drew.

“More resources would be nice, but you can only play with the cards you’re dealt.”

Johnson has found connecting individuals from outside of Polk County to services once they leave jail a challenge, because not all counties have the same services or resources.

“I can’t always have an appointment scheduled for them when they walk out the door, whereas I can if they are a Polk County resident,” she said.

Barriers for individuals continuing their mental health care outside of jail include finding housing and transportation to appointments. Those that are enrolled in BadgerCare can access the state’s nonemergency medical transportation services.

However, in Johnson’s experience, that extra step of organizing transportation can become a barrier for some people.

Polk County has one transitional housing facility for those returning to society after incarceration called the Serenity Home, but its future at its current location, in the old county jail, is uncertain.

“It has been a godsend to have them where they are, but unfortunately the county board opted not to renew their lease when it is up,” said Johnson.

The Serenity Home, operated by the Salvation Army, is located across the street from the Polk County Jail and neighbors the county’s behavioral health unit.

Looking to the future, Johnson and Drew are hopeful about the potential to better serve individuals incarcerated in the county jail who have mental health needs.

Recently, the county’s community services unit proposed two positions to expand behavioral health services. The positions are an additional half-time jail nurse, specializing in mental health services, and a full-time nurse practitioner for the behavioral health unit.

Drew supports both positions.

“If that comes to fruition, which I am hoping it does, I think it will be a really good model for other counties to provide more preventative care,” said Drew.

Danielle Danford, a staff writer for the Leader-Register, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story written as part of her Fellowship project. The full story is available here.


‘Kindness of Strangers’ a Last Resort for the Rural Mentally Ill

In rural Nebraska, police and medical providers have teamed up to divert troubled individuals from the justice system, but it’s still a struggle to get adequate resources.

Even though more services are becoming available to divert the seriously mentally ill from the justice system, rural communities are struggling to find the resources they need to bring those services to the people who need them.

Transportation, for instance, can make the difference between success or failure.

“We have no public transportation here,” said Pamela Hopkins, a Fremont, Neb., lawyer who is running for Dodge County Attorney. “Many of these people are unable to drive, for one reason or another, whether it’s because they use alcohol as a substitute for their treatment and they lost their licenses because of that, or they’re too poor to have a car.

“They’ve got to depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Without ready access to counseling or treatment often located far from their homes, defendants might otherwise find it hard to prove to judges that they are serious about addressing their problems.

Nebraska, like many states with large rural populations, is at the sharp end of the challenges of dealing with mentally troubled individuals. Most of the state is experiencing a shortage in mental health and psychiatric providers, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Office of Rural Health.

Linda Witmuss, deputy director of the DHHS Division of Behavioral Health, acknowledged that the system needs to undertake a “richer review of data” to better determine how the state’s finite resources should be allotted to meet the need.

But she argues that mental health reforms launched by the state in 2004 have led to more services at the community level.

“There’s always room for more services—don’t get me wrong there,” she said. “ (But) all of our rehab options (and) services, including expansion of medication management, came about as a result of that reform.”

In 2004, the Nebraska legislature passed Bill LB1083, which was designed to reduce the use of inpatient psychiatric services at the state’s three Regional Centers in Lincoln, Norfolk and Hastings, and invest more in outpatient and community-based services that could help those struggling with mental health in their own communities.

The reduction of inpatient beds was consistent with nationwide efforts to move away from institutionalizing the mentally ill and instead treat them in their communities. But those interviewed by the Tribune say that the infrastructure for community care was slow to materialize, and it still isn’t adequate for those who may be in need of more intensive care.

“There’s a lot of people who aren’t even leaving their homes to get the services that they need because they’re just homebound because of their anxiety,” said Hylean McGreevy, a licensed mental health practitioner and alcohol and drug counselor at Methodist Fremont Health’s Behavioral Outpatient Services.

“They’re not functioning well and they fall through the cracks.”

According to numbers provided to the Tribune by the Nebraska Jail Standards Board, of 1,225 individuals discharged from the Regional Centers in a four-year period following mental health reform, nearly 500, or around 40 percent, ended up in the county jail system at least once.

About six percent ended up in the prison system.

Collaboration Between Police and Health Providers

The challenges often begin at the street level, where rural law enforcement encounters individuals in desperate straits.

“There is a lot of stress on the community,” said Fremont Police Lt. Kurt Bottorff. “Times are hard for certain people — the stress builds up and that’s where some mental health breakdowns can take place.

“Their behavior ends up being a law violation and they’re sometimes jailed because of it, instead of addressing the core problem.”

Under a pilot program that started in July, the Fremont Police Department became one of only two departments in the state to hire a crisis response co-responder—a licensed mental health practitioner who works directly in the police department two days per week, responding to 911 calls alongside officers when she believes mental health is an issue in the complaint.

The pilot program, funded by a two-year grant from the Behavioral Health Support Foundation and operating in collaboration with Lutheran Family Services, aims to help keep those struggling with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system or avoid involuntary hospital stays, and to connect them with community resources.

Until recently, even the nearest medical services were a 40-minute drive away, in Omaha.

Now, mental health practitioner Rachel Wesely can respond at her own discretion instantaneously, from within the department, and can follow up with callers after law enforcement leaves.

‘When people are released (from jail) into the community, and they don’t have the supports in place, it becomes a revolving door.’

But as concern mounts about a growing number of mentally ill individuals entering the criminal justice system and winding up in county jails, local stakeholders are taking a more focused approach to line those individuals up with more appropriate services.

“There’s a need for access to treatment in jails and when individuals are incarcerated, it’s not getting filled,” Wesely said. “Sometimes when people are released back out into the community (and) they don’t have the supports in place, it kind of becomes a revolving door.”

Medication and services can be expensive. Many lack insurance to help cover costs, though some programs offer sliding fee scales, which can adjust payments based on income and family size. In recent years, co-pays and deductibles have become more expensive even for those who have insurance, providers say.

Additionally, treating mental illness is more complicated than treating physical ailments, and ensuring compliance to treatment plans poses challenges, providers say. Psychiatric treatment requires significant “trial-and-error” to find the right medications, doses and strategies. That means lots of time spent taking medications that may ultimately need to be adjusted or changed, and that may carry unpleasant side effects that deter compliance.

It’s a process that requires patience and follow-up. And ensuring that patients comply with their treatment plans, remain stable or avoid self-medicating with illicit drugs and alcohol is a challenge that’s only exacerbated by barriers like access and affordability.

“Let’s just use a hypothetical,” said Dodge County Attorney Oliver Glass. “I can’t afford my medication, my medication makes me feel strange anyway, but I do know that when I self-medicate with street drugs or alcohol, that’s going to make me feel better at least.

“And that’s when, at least in my experience here, a lot of crimes are committed.”

Intensive Care Challenges

The Regional (Health) Center has some space available to the regions for more intensive care. It houses individuals who have been ordered by a court to receive a competency evaluation or restoration, as well as individuals committed by a local mental health board. The latter process only occurs if an individual in crisis refuses to be voluntarily committed and is put under an emergency protective custody.

But wait times to get into the often crowded Regional Center have gone up, officials say.

Witmuss of the DHSS said that the state is looking into the need to increase capacity, but cautioned that opening new beds alone wouldn’t solve the problem.

“We have a lot of complex cases,” she said. “When you can’t discharge folks, then you can’t admit folks, either.”

Mental health programs and services are funded through Medicaid as well as the state’s behavioral healthcare regional system. Providers contract with one of the six regions, which then funnels funding from DHHS’ Division of Behavioral Health, federal block grants and county-level matching funds.

But grants and pilot programs, like the Lutheran Family Services’ co-responder program, are only guaranteed for fixed periods of time. Agencies and organizations are always shifting their appropriations to keep up with where the demand is highest, which can lead to changes in program availability.

Meanwhile, at the local level, stakeholders are giving new focus to the issue. Providers are exploring more innovative solutions to staff shortages, such as Telehealth, which would allow for remote counseling or med management.

Last year, Behavioral Health Care Region 6, which encompasses Douglas, Dodge, Cass, Washington and Sarpy Counties, hired Vicki Maca as a full-time employee, dedicated to trying to keep mentally ill individuals out of the criminal justice system.

That hiring decision was spurred by a nationwide initiative involving the National Association of County Officials, the American Psychiatric Association and the Council of State Governments known as the Stepping Up Initiative.

The initiative is a data-driven effort to reduce the number of people with serious mental illness booked into jail, shorten their average length of stay, increase the connection to care for those individuals in jail and reduce rates of recidivism.

While other behavioral health care regions are engaging with the Stepping Up Initiative, Region 6 is the only one that’s hired a full-time employee devoted to the topic.

But officials and providers remain optimistic. Rachel Wesely, the co-responder at the Fremont Police Department, law enforcement’s enthusiasm and willingness to cooperate with the co-responder model has led to success, she said.

Lt. Bottorff agrees.

“What I’m seeing now is reduced calls for service for the same problem,” he added. “There are times when we get so bombarded with the same situation—they didn’t have the tools to fix their problem.”

James Farrell, a staff writer for The Fremont Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an edited version of  Part Two of a series exploring the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system in rural Nebraska. To see the full version, click here. Part One can be accessed here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Survey Finds Opioid Epidemic is Biggest Concern Among Rural Americans

Almost a quarter of rural Americans consider drug addiction or abuse as the most urgent health problem facing their communities, and more than half reported they knew someone struggling with addiction, according to a Harvard survey released this month.

Almost a quarter of rural Americans consider drug addiction or abuse as the most urgent health problem facing their communities, and the opioid crisis alone now edges past the economy as their major preoccupation, according to a survey released this month.

The survey, conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in partnership with with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and released as part of the Harvard Shorenstein Center continuing series of “Resources for Journalists,” polled a sample of 1,300 adults living in rural America between June 6, 2018 and Aug. 4, 2018.

Nearly half of those polled reported they knew someone struggling with addiction.

Asked what they felt was the “biggest problem” facing their community, 25 percent said drug addiction or abuse, and 21 percent named economic concerns.

Poll organizers said the survey results represented a new window into the thinking of Americans living outside mainstream population areas.

“For over a decade, the discussions about rural America have been about serious economic concerns,” according to Robert J. Blendon, a professor of public health and health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a co-director of the poll.

“When we asked people in their own words, it turned out that drug abuse was essentially the same [level of concern as economic issues]. This has never been reported before.”

Blendon’s comments came in an interview with Chloe Reichl for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School.

Some 49 percent of those surveyed said they personally knew someone who struggled with opioid addiction, and 48 percent said that the problem had worsened in the past five years.

One surprising result of the survey, according to Blendon, was that a majority felt that government had a major role to play in solving the addiction crisis and other problems. Most of the respondents believed effective help could come from state or local governments, but 18 per cent felt the federal government had a major role

Blendon said this contradicted the common assumptions that rural Americans were resistant to governmental intervention.

He said rural Americans in some cases seemed more optimistic than experts in their beliefs that short-term solutions were possible.

There’s “a gap where people do believe you can make some really short-term progress in treatment and education (while) a lot of experts say this could be turned around, but it could take decades.”

Respondents to the phone survey were 78 percent white, 8 percent black, and 8 percent Latino. Most of the respondents (80 percent) were not college graduates.

A related briefing paper produced by Journalists Resources noted two recent studies which showed that patients in the rural South are more likely to receive opioid prescriptions for their pain than patients in the urban North.

The complete survey on “Life in Rural America” can be downloaded here.


Safety and Justice Challenge Expands to 12 New Cities

Citing “significant progress and growing interest in criminal justice reform,” the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) has announced it is giving an addition $22 million in grants to cities and countries for projects aimed at reducing jail incarceration.

Citing “significant progress and growing interest in criminal justice reform,” the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) Innovation Fund has announced it is giving an addition $22 million in grants to cities and countries for projects aimed at reducing jail incarceration.

The program, described as a a “national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails, ” has provided over $148 million to support  projects in 52 cities and counties across 32 states  since 2015.

The new funds will go to 12 new cities and countries, as well as 13 sites that have already received funds, the Foundation said.

Under the program, local leaders commit to working with a broad group of stakeholders, ranging from elected officials, health providers, and law enforcement to formerly incarcerated residents, to address over-incarceration, address racial and ethnic disparities, and make local systems more just and equitable.

The foundation says significant improvements have already occurred as a result of the program, citing for example a 36 percent decrease in Philadelphia’s jail population  through an increase in diversion programs for drug-related offenders and new, early bail review processes.

Similar efforts have cut the the jail population in Cook County, Il.(which includes Chicago) by 26 percent, the Foundation said.

“There is growing demand for criminal justice reform across the country, and local jurisdictions are leading the way,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s Director of Justice Reform, in a statement accompanying the announcement.

“MacArthur is increasing our investment because we are seeing promising results and an appetite for more reform as evidenced by the diversity and creativity of the solutions implemented and tested across the Network.”

The 12 new jurisdictions chosen to receive grants up to $50,000 are:

  • Baltimore City, MD
  • Bernalillo County, NM
  • Camden County, NJ
  • Cumberland County, ME
  • Franklin County, OH
  • Gwinnett County, GA
  • Hennepin County, MN
  • City of Long Beach, CA
  • Norfolk County, MA
  • Sangamon County, IL
  • City of St. Louis, MO
  • Tuksa County, OK

Their innovations will range in focus from crisis intervention to behavioral health to pretrial release and supervision — ranging from partnerships with local domestic violence centers for justice-involved women to establishing a Community Crisis Center to divert adults with mental illness from jail to treatment and services.

Editor’s Note: The Center on Media, crime and Justice at John Jay, publisher of The Crime Report, has received support from MacArthur and the Ford Foundation for a fellowship program aimed at helping reporters cover rural justice issues.

The journalists’ stories, which analyze some of the projects funded by the Safety and Justice Challenge, can be seen here.

To see reports

A full coy of the report can be found here.


Jail-Building ‘Boom’ Financed by Dept of Agriculture Funds: Study

Rural communities are quietly getting funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to build jails that in some cases far exceed their needs, according to a new study released by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Rural communities are in the midst of a quiet jail boom, financed in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to a new study released by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“USDA funds are now increasingly being directed to helping some rural counties build new, expanded jails, and helping others stay in the business of immigrant detention,” authors’ Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown said.

This past summer, the Trump administration announced that the USDA would give farmers up to $12 billion around harvest time to insulate them from the effects of the administration’s trade wars, the study, titled “Farm Aid for the Big House,” noted.

At the same time, according to public records, the Trump administration also increased USDA investment in jail construction, the study continued. 

“Over the past four decades, and in the context of increasing inequality and economic decline in rural areas, the construction and expansion of the infrastructure of incarceration has been justified in terms of rural development.”

Researchers looked specifically at USDA funding in New York, Green County and Baker County, Florida, and found that USDA funding is building new jails that the majority of the community does not want.

In upstate New York, Greene County is going forward with a $39 million low-interest loan application to the USDA to build a massive new jail “that many in the community simply do not want.” And, in Baker County, Florida, a USDA refinancing loan is essentially bailing out investors in a large, county-run jail and immigrant detention center.

The planned Greene County facility was designed to hold nearly 100 people, despite an average daily population of 50 in the jail last year. Filling the new jail would put Greene County in the top 10 largest New York jails on a per capita basis, the study noted. To pay for the project, which is unusually costly because it will be sited on poorly drained clay, the county has submitted a $39 million loan application to the USDA, according to authors. 

Researchers found the debate over the proposed jail in Greene County has become a debate over the meaning of development in this rural county.

“What they [the USDA] seem to be doing,” one Greene County activist said in the report, “is helping to make people more disadvantaged upstate. And one of the key questions is, are they really encouraging people who borrow money to have more [jail] beds?”

More, in 2008, Baker County, in northern Florida, took on $45 million in debt on the municipal bond market to build a 512-bed jail, data showed.  The objective, according to documents sent to investors, was to rent the new beds to federal agencies in order to create a revenue stream.

“By building a jail that far exceeded the county’s needs, Baker hoped to earn enough to pay for incarcerating an increasing number of people held for the county,” authors said.

Researchers concluded that the USDA, by offering low-interest loans for jail construction in agricultural areas, is facilitating investment in incarceration rather than other community needs.

The USDA Community Facilities program, meant to improve economic development and quality of life, is instead increasingly being used to fund the infrastructure to detain and incarcerate more people in rural counties across the country.” 

A full copy of the report can be found here.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Megan Hadley.