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While big cities and urban areas are making strides to reduce jail populations, rural counties and small cities are experiencing an unfortunate rise. Partnerships with research teams in Georgia and Washington State will help study local criminal justice systems and help us understand the challenges facing these jurisdictions.

New York, N.Y. —­ Since 2017, the Vera Institute of Justice has documented the surprising and dramatic shift in the geography of mass incarceration: While big cities and urban areas are making strides to stem the tide of people entering local jails, rural counties and small cities are instead experiencing a staggering rise. As a result, the total U.S. jail population continues to increase, eroding the nation’s efforts to end mass incarceration. Research that could shed light on the sources of this problem has rarely focused on rural justice systems, and the small size, large number, and geographic dispersal of rural places makes them hard to reach and engage in national justice reform initiatives. Further, policy interventions that have worked in large cities are often not feasible in small communities.

As a response to this need, the Vera Institute of Justice announced a new partnership with research teams at Washington State University and the University of Georgia as part of the Rural Jails Research and Policy Network, a new project created with support from Arnold Ventures. The project will support collaborative research and capacity-building with local justice systems in Washington and Georgia — two states where rural counties are facing significant and diverse challenges in reducing the reach and impact of mass incarceration.

"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. Looking ahead, it’s imperative that we empower and resource overlooked rural counties so they can implement locally tailored reforms,” said Nancy Fishman, Project Director at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “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."

Chosen through a competitive request for proposals process that included applications from university-based research teams across multiple disciplines, including criminal justice, public administration, public health, and psychology — indicating a widespread interest in the study of rural criminal justice issues — the new sites stood out for their applied research skills, connections to rural communities in their states, and bold visions for sustaining research on rural justice issues.

“Whether in big cities or small towns, far too many Americans are denied the presumption of innocence and locked in jails simply because they cannot pay for their freedom,” said James Cadogan, Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “Vera has led the field in exposing the trends of increasing jail incarceration in rural and small counties across the country. Arnold Ventures is pleased to help build a thoughtful, research-oriented community and support Vera’s efforts to reverse the rural jail growth crisis.”

In Washington state, the project will research how state-level reforms, driven by the more urbanized western side of the state, interact with the local county dynamics in the more rural eastern side. They’ll pay particular attention to the regions’ distinct populations — including college town communities, agricultural and ranching communities, Native Americans, and migrant farmworkers — and its vast geographies and close ties with neighboring Idaho.

“Mass incarceration in jails is an often-overlooked problem — it must be addressed both nationally and where we are,” said Dr. Jennifer Sherman, Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington State University. “We’re thrilled to work with Vera at the forefront of this reform and look forward to continuing this much-needed work.”

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

“I’m excited about the collaboration that this grant is designed to build between UGA and 15 rural communities in Georgia,” said Dr. Sarah Shannon, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Georgia. “Criminal justice reforms at the state level in recent years have been impressive, but this research will bring much-needed attention to rural communities in Georgia. The goal is to help understand and address challenges facing local jails in a way that has not been done before.”

Over the course of the project, the sites will work to build a knowledge base of local justice and jail data in rural counties, engage local stakeholders in discussion and analysis of their systems, and facilitate collaborative and data-driven processes to generate possible solutions and policy decisions that are tailored to the specific needs of rural areas. The project also provides capacity-building to local officials and researchers to ensure that these solutions are implemented in the long term. Finally, the research and lessons learned from this pilot project will serve as a model for other rural jurisdictions that are looking for local solutions.

“As a formally incarcerated person from rural Minnesota who now studies these issues, I applaud Vera and Arnold for supporting this work,” said Robert Stewart, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota and member of the Advisory Group that helped select sites for this project. “Rural incarceration is a substantial driver of the U.S. incarceration rate, yet we know relatively little about rural systems of justice, and especially how these systems and experiences differ from more heavily studied urban settings. The two very talented research teams from the University of Georgia and Washington State are especially well-positioned to shine a much-needed light on these issues.”

About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

About Arnold Ventures

Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. Driven by a mission to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice, it invests in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking, and a strong foundation of evidence. Arnold Ventures is headquartered in Houston, with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.