Rural Pretrial Incarceration, a Disproportionate Issue

By Sophia Strickland

Reports on the United States’ rapidly increasing incarcerated population have sparked a discussion over bail reform. However, a segment that may not receive as much attention in this area is the pretrial, incarcerated rural population, which has contributed disproportionately to the increasing jailed population in the United States, according to a new report by Right On Crime. Nationwide, the jailed population increased three times its original size between 1970 and 2014  but sevenfold in small counties in the same period.

The increase in this rural pretrial jailed group can be partly attributed to an economic incentive for local jails to house other jurisdictions’ inmates for remuneration and the growing opioid crisis with increased related drug arrests in these areas according to the authors of the report, Marc Levin and Michael Haugen.

Since many people are detained pretrial because they are unable to post bail, the link between poor socioeconomic status and rural areas cannot be ignored. Addressing these areas poses its own challenges. Rural populations are often more disperse, and local governments may have limited resources and funds to invest in tools and training.

Contrary to “innocent-until-proven-guilty” in the U.S. justice system, the pretrial norm is incarceration over release, even for misdemeanor, non-violent crimes. Changing this would require a shift of burden to the state to prove that the defendant must be denied bond or release pretrial.

Pretrial detention does cause harmful effects, including increased costs to taxpayers from housing more inmates. Because of these reasons, pretrial detention “is only beneficial in a small segment of cases and is counterproductive in many more,” Right On Crime notes.

There are evidence-based policy solutions to address this challenge that can promote public safety and reduce the taxpayer burden. Courts should be able to decide if each defendant poses a public threat or flight risk, then match pretrial conditions in the least restrictive way. Validated risk-assessments can be an informative tool for judges; other policy solutions are reducing the offenses requiring arrests or jail time, redirecting low-risk individuals to social services, and reminding defendants on release about trial obligations through technology. Many strategies can be used in rural communities to make “a constitutional system that produces greater public safety with less collateral damage,” according to the report.

For the full report and more information on this issue, you can view Right On Crime’s “Open Roads and Overflowing Jails: Addressing High Rates of Rural Pretrial Incarceration” here:

Sophia Strickland is a student at Johns Hopkins University and an intern at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.