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Rural places keep building jails as moneymakers, but report from advocate of bail reform says they may not pay off

While the overall incarcerated population in the U.S. has fallen over the past decade, jail and prison capacity has increased, especially in rural areas that increasingly rely on jails for revenue, according to a new report from the Vera Institute for Justice, “Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead.” (For simplicity’s sake, it refers to prisons as “jails.”)

Nationwide, jail capacity grew by 86,400 beds—over 11 percent—between 2005 and 2013, mostly in smaller cities and rural areas. “To justify this growth, incarceration is still often framed as a solution, rather than a problem, positioning jail expansion as a pragmatic answer to growing jail populations,” the report says, but it says more jail and prison capacity almost ensures increased incarceration rates.

“There are several reasons why rural counties have steadily built out their jails over the past decade, but one of the biggest ones is the potential to turn the facility into a money generator,” Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. “By building a new jail, or adding an expansion on to an existing one, counties are able to rent the extra space out to other counties, or to the state and federal government, when their facilities experience overcrowding.” In recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become a big customer, the report says.

“Usually a county could get paid $50 to $100 per day for housing people from outside their jurisdiction,” report co-author Chris Mai told Coleman. “It makes people think a larger jail is a sound financial decision.”

However, the report shows that pursuing jail expansion could be a long-term risk. Though jail populations have always increased eventually, “growing bipartisan support for policies like the elimination of cash bail, the decriminalization of marijuana, and diversion programs, coupled with falling crime rates, could change that calculus,” Coleman reports. “Instead, new jails right now are being built for a shrinking market—and county taxpayers are on the hook for larger, more expensive facilities that may very well sit empty.” The Vera Institute favors bail reform.

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.