Rural America Has Highest Jail Incarceration Rates in the U.S. Despite Low Crime Rates, New Report Reveals

June 13, 2017

New York, NY—Where are jails most overused? Contrary to conventional wisdom, the highest jail incarceration rates are in America’s rural counties. In the past several years, jail populations have continued to grow ever-larger in rural counties while they have declined in many large cities, despite rural counties having substantially lower crime rates than cities, a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challengereveals. Rural counties have the nation’s highest rates of pretrial incarceration, are increasingly renting out jail beds to hold people for other government agencies, and have fewer resources than their urban counterparts—all of which are contributing to these counties’ outsized use of incarceration, the report found.

The nation’s 1,936 rural counties make up two-thirds of all U.S. counties, but have been overlooked in the national conversation on mass incarceration, which centers on big cities. But urban places have begun to turn the tide on jail incarceration and, after significant reform efforts, many are now reducing their jail populations. Meanwhile, rural jail growth has continued unabated.

“Rural towns, and the unique struggles they are facing, have for too long been out of sight and out of mind for many Americans—something that was made clear when the results of the last election took much of the country by surprise,” said Vera President Nicholas Turner. “Their growing jails are a glimpse into the pain that many people in these counties know intimately. We hope that this report sheds light on an important trend, and brings rural America into the criminal justice conversation. We can’t end mass incarceration in America without paying attention to rural jails.”

To better understand the increasing rurality of jail incarceration, Vera examined data from its Incarceration Trends Project, which collects disparate jail data from national sources and has recently been updated with pretrial jail population data. The analysis revealed that the trends that are driving jail use nationwide—increasing use of pretrial detention and an expanding jail-bed market—are especially pronounced in rural counties, which also have fewer resources to help keep people out of jail than their urban counterparts.

Specifically, the report found that:

  • While the rate at which legally presumed innocent people are held in jail pretrial has grown 223% nationwide since 1970, it has risen 436% in rural counties, driven in large part by rural areas in the South and West.
  • Despite their higher jail incarceration rates, rural counties have lower crime rates: their property crime rate is three-quarters, and violent crime rate is two-thirds, those of cities. While the opioid crisis that is unfolding in predominately rural areas is currently under a national spotlight, rural jail incarceration was on an upward trajectory well before the recent crisis.
  • Rural jails have a more limited tax base than cities and experience resource challenges that contribute to their reliance on incarceration, including remote location of courts, scarce public defender services, and few diversion and pretrial services programs.
  • It is now common practice for jails to rent out extra beds to other jails, state prisons, or federal authorities. However, rural areas now use jail beds for other purposes at a rate 888% higher than in 1978, while rates in urban areas increased only 134%.
  • The expanded use of rented jail beds in rural counties is driven in part by financial incentives, as other agencies offer a per-diem rate for each incarcerated person held in a local jail that can help fill budget gaps or even be used to justify a jail expansion.

“The majority of people in jail today are legally presumed to be innocent, and many are held simply because they cannot afford bail,” said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation. “As this report shows, this injustice is especially pronounced in rural places that are already struggling economically. We hope this report jumpstarts a long-overdue conversation about the use of jails in rural counties, and that it leads to the development of tailored, effective alternatives to jail that can improve the lives of individuals, families, and whole communities in these towns.”

The report also found that what has been successful in driving down jail use in cities may not necessarily apply to rural places. In order for rural places to be able to decrease their use of jail incarceration, more research and policy that is tailed to rural jails is urgently needed. The report is available on Vera’s website, along with an interactive data visualization that sheds light on the way that specific counties are using pretrial detention and rented beds. Vera’s Incarceration Trends data tool has also been updated to provide pretrial jail incarceration data for every U.S. county.

This report is one of a series that Vera is releasing with the Safety and Justice Challenge—the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. The initiative is supporting a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions committed to safely reducing jail incarceration and making their justice systems fairer and more effective. Learn more at