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Incarceration Rates Rise in Rural Areas

With the revival of discussion surrounding the mistreatment within mass incarceration, we've begun seeing progress toward reform being made towards cities wishing to contribute positively to the justice system. Yet as we see the start of a decrease in jail time in states and big cities due to reform, we still see the rise of carceral rates in rural counties.

So why is this?

The reasoning behind this is how rural populations will interact with the criminal justice system. Due to such a minuscule population size, the influence of one individual will significantly affect others in a drastically negative or positive way. With how a county runs, the factors contributing to the rise of incarceration rates in rural areas would be reputation, lack of leniency, and money incentives on behalf of county jails.

In a rural area, contrary to a big city, everyone tends to know or know of everyone in their county. There are both close ties and opinions of everyone in the area, as most have interacted with each other once. Due to this, how surveillance works within a closed community/county differ more drastically than the way in which it is exhibited within a bigger city or population. An example of this would be how if police are aware you have gotten your license confiscated for some time, they will recognize you when they see you driving again. This can lead to a built-up fine or charge- the chances of this occurring with how likely the officer is to recognize you. In an inverse situation, if an individual recognized someone who in the county has an outstanding reputation, they would be less likely to give this individual cruel punishment without biases. With this, there is a gap between reputation and justice as those who are well known for positive occurrences (despite publicity framing) will have an easier time with the law than those who may have had run-ins with crime but are trying to improve.

With this occurrence, it is also crucial to acknowledge how often an individual is recognized for crimes because it can influence the leniency that person will face regarding healthcare or necessary resources. When an individual is pulled over and forced to pay a fine, they will have a more challenging time paying that fine if they cannot come to work, which can be associated with how often they are recognized or 'kept an eye out for' when on the road. The opposite circumstance will occur for those with a 'better' reputation as they will not have to deal with these issues of being stopped by law enforcement as often as others. However, just because of a traffic stop or being thrown in jail for minor infractions, these same individuals who may already be struggling will have to deal with the financial consequences, which cycle them back into the carceral system when they cannot pay fines. For example, a heavily problematic issue would be the lack of medicare and healthcare coverage available to people who have been in jail, which is an issue if these individuals are in prison due to minor infractions.

With county jails especially, the likelihood of an arrest will increase due to the money incentive that is prominent as jails and carceral systems expand in said county. With counties that are not as properly funded as cities, the increase in jails can create a high risk of monetary debt when individuals aren't incarcerated. Due to this, more people are being arrested in order for jails to cover the construction costs of jail expansion. Due to this reason, it is reported that more than four times as many people are being held pretrial on an average day than before the jail expanded in a country where a jail had been raised from a few bed cells to a few hundred cells. If jails are reliant economically on arrests being made, those who are targeted by said arrests due to recognition feel a heightened sense of security and animosity. Although it might seem like those who are imprisoned 'deserve' it in a sense for their crimes, it's also been reported that more arrests in this country do not equate to fewer crimes being committed. Jails being filled is not a decreasing or deterring agent for crime. With this, the carceral system creates a troubling cycle within these counties that keeps the imprisoned in prison and jails expanding. While we hope to make change within cities that are critically affected by the lack of justice created from over integration of the carceral system, we still have to be sure to maintain attention towards rural areas as well - all to ensure that when resolving the issues with the justice system, we are able to take into account more than just the voices we hear the loudest.

Works Cited:

Neath, Scarlet. “Understanding Jail Growth in Rural America.” Vera Institute of Justice, 16 May 2017,

Paterson, Lauren. “While Washington's Urban Arrests Trend down, Rural Incarceration Rates Are Going Up.” Northwest Public Broadcasting, 15 Dec. 2022,

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