New Initiative to Address Overlooked Driver of Mass Incarceration

In Our Backyards, launching with $4 million support from, expands the criminal justice conversation beyond urban areas into small cities and rural communities 

New York, NY—Progress towards ending mass incarceration is underway in America’s urban centers. But research from the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) shows an unexpected shift in the geography of incarceration: America’s most outsized jails are now in the least populous areas, which means we will only undo mass incarceration by focusing energy and attention beyond cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Houston. To drive that effort, Vera today launched In Our Backyards, an expansive initiative supported by a $4 million grant from as part of its Racial Justice and Inclusion work.

Through In Our Backyards, the Vera team will uncover what has been driving the rapid growth of incarceration over the past two decades in the thousands of smaller cities and towns that account for nearly half of the country’s population. Vera will use data and analysis in partnership with local communities, governments, and advocates to reverse this trend. While small cities and smaller towns have never been at the center of the conversation about mass incarceration, they now bear increasingly heavier burdens. It is time to shift our understanding of mass incarceration from a problem that only resides in big cities to a challenge that now touches every community in America. We must expand our view of whose problem it is, and who has an interest in solving it.

In 2015, Vera launched Incarceration Trends with the support of the Robert Wilson Charitable Trust and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This first-in-kind data tool meticulously pieced together 45 years of jail data for nearly every American county and revealed this shifting incarceration problem. It showed that while urban jail populations have fallen, rural and small city jail populations are still growing—even as “red,” “blue,” and “purple” states across the country are taking steps to reduce the size of their prison populations. The highest incarceration rates are now far from big cities and their surrounding suburbs.

When looked at through the prism of last year’s election, data shows that primarily rural counties that voted for Trump had a 53 percent higher jail admissions rate than those that voted for Clinton. In fact, Vera’s analysis has uncovered that jail incarceration is less prevalent in urban communities, regardless of race. And while the number of Black people in jail across the country has decreased slightly while the numbers of Latinos and Whites have risen, corrosive racial disparities still persist—and are felt the most profoundly in rural areas. These realities provide a window into the pain of small town America, and speak to larger socioeconomic factors such as shrinking economies, deteriorating public health, negligible services and pervasive addiction.

“You need to understand a problem to find a solution,” said Nicholas Turner, president of Vera. “Until uncovered by our Incarceration Trends analysis, no one actually knew that small and rural counties have been the major sources of incarceration’s growth since the mid to late 1990s. The urgency of ending mass incarceration has been felt profoundly by urban America and communities of color. What this research shows us is that mostly white, rural America has an interest in ending it, too. They’ve just not been in the conversation. Thanks to’s generous support, we will be better able to tell the story of what’s going on in our nation’s backyards—from those in cities to those in rural America.”

The grant will provide Vera the resources needed to expand the Incarceration Trends tool and include information on the number of people sent to prison from each U.S. county, as well as a host of other public safety, crime, economic, and demographic metrics that better contextualize each community’s incarceration trends. Vera will also conduct in-depth interviews with residents and stakeholders in small cities and rural counties across the county to paint a fuller picture of the often overlooked economic, social, and political environments that lead to high rates of incarceration. Data and communications experts from will generously provide in-kind support, and we’re also working with the team to identify volunteer opportunities for their technical employees. Using innovative communication tools, In Our Backyards will integrate a public awareness campaign that ultimately reframes the narrative of mass incarceration as a local and personal issue—one that can be solved if we engage all people.

“Vera is doing important work to expand the narrative of mass incarceration to include small towns and rural communities where jail populations are increasing most,” said Justin Steele, principal at and Racial Justice Giving lead. “We’re proud to support Vera’s creation of a local jail data set and an accessible visualization tool to help end mass incarceration in these communities. Vera is our second largest grantee in our Racial Justice Portfolio, and we look forward to exploring ways that our employees can volunteer and help Vera with their efforts.”

“Mass incarceration has spread beyond the large cities where it took root and now affects nearly every American community,” said Christian Henrichson, research director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “This means that it is mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration if the number of people behind bars in small counties does not take the same downward trajectory as it recently has in big cities."

The Grant

In its efforts to advance equity and inclusion,’s Inclusion and Racial Justice grant funding is focused on supporting organizations that are addressing racial bias and inequity in the U.S., particularly in the criminal justice system. The grant awarded to Vera will total $4 million over three years, and will fund additional staff to perform quantitative and qualitative research and boost its public affairs and communications capacity, technology investments, and resources to support dissemination and story-telling initiatives.

About The Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization that works to build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities.

About Google.Org and the Racial Justice Portfolio supports nonprofits that innovate to address humanitarian issues. Since launching in 2005, has sought out nonprofit innovators that apply radical, data-driven innovation to solving the world's biggest challenges. It’s been two years since we first launched our formal racial justice portfolio, and with this announcement, we’ve now given $32 million to organizations focused on racial and social justice, and engaged our employees in skills-based volunteering engagements with these organizations.

Contact: Hilary Lyons, 914-874-6815,

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