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Arrests, jail more common in rural and small/midsize counties

As we consider the causes of mass incarceration in the United States, we start with the knowledge that crime has been dropping since the mid-1990s. That should mean that arrest rates are also dropping, but that isn't always the case.

Furthermore, 25 years ago, the police jailed about 70 of every 100 people they arrested, on average nationwide. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, police were jailing 99 out of every 100 people arrested.

The main takeaway from the Vera Institute for Justice's arrest-jail admission gap report may be that arrest rates have dropped since about 1990, corresponding with the drop in crime. However, those arrest rates haven't dropped nearly as quickly as crime has. And, in rural and small-to-midsize counties, the arrest rate has dropped much more slowly than in urban and suburban counties.

This, combined with the increase in the number of arrestees being jailed, has resulted in a somewhat surprising outcome. Rural and small-to-midsize counties make up about 45% of the American population, but they make 51% of all arrests in the country and account for 57% of all jail admissions in the U.S.

In other words, people in rural areas and smaller population centers are arrested at higher rates and jailed at higher rates than people in urban and suburban communities.

Jail admissions are rising, too, despite falling crime

Moreover, in rural areas there is a growing jail admission rate despite the drop in crime and gradual decline in the arrest rate. In rural counties, the jail admission rate is still rising despite the fact that the arrest rate is dropping.

In fact, in both rural and small-to-midsize counties, the jail admission rate is actually higher than the arrest rate. That could mean that people are being admitted to jail even though they haven't been arrested.

How could that be? Vera is careful to say that there are weaknesses in our nation's data collection on arrests and jail admissions. However, one report found that, in certain jurisdictions, 20% of all incarcerated people are serving time for failure to pay off criminal justice debts. Other possibilities for people being jailed unrelated to an arrest include:

  • Bench warrants
  • Probation/parole violations
  • Failure to appear in court

More data is needed to fully understand why rural and small-to-midsize counties are arresting and jailing a disproportionate number of people. If crime is down, how come law enforcement is still so high?

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