New Poll Finds That Urban and Rural America are Rethinking Mass Incarceration

Vera Institute of Justice Poll Shows Building New Jails and Prisons Ranks Lowest as Public Spending Priority and Reform Candidates Are Viewed Favorably.

Today, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) released a national survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR) which shows widespread sentiment that our criminal justice system is not working, reflects support for reform candidates, and emphasizes that communities would prefer to focus on priorities other than spending millions on prisons and jails.  Despite speculation around a growing urban-rural divide, this nationally representative survey of 2,000 American adults found broad consensus among rural America, small cities, and major metropolitan areas.

“Today, our nation’s smallest communities are shouldering the highest rates of incarceration. But, in an era marked by division, there is sweeping consensus from both rural and urban America: investing in incarceration is not a pathway to safety, and the justice system is failing to deliver on the promise of equal justice,” said Jasmine Heiss, Director of Outreach and Public Affairs Strategist for Vera’s In Our Backyards initiative. “It is time for a truly national movement to reverse our overreliance on incarceration.” 

The poll shows that a 40 percent plurality believe incarceration rates in their communities are too high, and a 66 percent majority (60 percent in rural communities) would describe themselves as “concerned” if they learned incarceration rates in their community were higher than in similar communities.

“Vera’s In Our Backyards initiative was sparked by the insight that incarceration has spread everywhere and is now most prevalent in the least expected places—small and rural counties,” said Christian Henrichson, Research Director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “The data from this poll defies the common narrative of a vast chasm of public opinion between urban and rural counties. In fact, we have seen a groundswell of grassroots organizing to rally against jail expansion in smaller cities and towns, whether in Lawrence, Kansas, or upstate New York.”

Some of the doubt about incarceration uncovered in this poll reflects competing priorities for public investment. Prisons and jail construction and repair ranks as the lowest priority when compared to construction and repair of schools, roads, healthcare facilities, and water treatment and irrigation. And a 62 percent majority agrees that building more prisons and jails is not an effective means to improve the quality of life in their community, favoring investment in education, job training, roads, programs to reduce bias, and community-based services. This consensus emerges amid doubts about the equity of local criminal justice systems and their ability to fairly mete out justice—particularly to people of color or low-income people. When asked specifically about local judges, a 47 percent plurality disagree with the statement, “Local judges are fair to all people, regardless of background,” including 63 percent of black Americans.

More broadly, Americans fundamentally believe the current criminal justice system is not living up to its promise of producing safer communities. A 67 percent majority agree, “building more jails and prisons to keep more people in jail does not reduce crime,” including 61 percent of rural Americans. And nearly half (49 percent) believe, “Too many people are in jail for the wrong reasons.”  

“This national survey shows that more and more Americans are ready for policy alternatives and better investments of their money than in prisons and jails. The intensity of concern about local incarceration speaks to the potential for change in communities of all sizes,” said Dave Walker, Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “As someone who studies the polarization of this country for a living, even I am struck how this issue transcends both regional and partisan divisions.”

Quality of life priorities

To accompany the survey results, Vera also released research conducted by Jack Norton, focused on small cities and rural areas. The county-level profiles explore Montgomery County in upstate New York, and Alamosa and Pueblo Counties in Southern Colorado, where incarceration rates are among the highest in the respective states. The profiles elevate the human toll of local incarceration, including the system-wide impacts of a single judge’s punitive approach to sentencing, and the experience of a woman who delivered her own baby in Alamosa County’s jail. Profiles of these counties can be found here.

“As the geography and scale of incarceration shifts, numbers alone cannot tell the full story,” said Jack Norton, Research Associate at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “Taking a closer look at the effects of local jails and talking with people on the ground reveal the ways in which incarceration and mass criminalization affect all of us, and the rippling impacts of policies and practices on human lives.”

These stories, along with the new survey research, comprise a more complete and nuanced narrative of incarceration in America, elevating rural areas and smaller cities that are often overlooked. And they speak to a potential for change: as communities across America prepare to elect a range of local officeholders in 2018, polling shows widespread geographic support for a hypothetical reform candidate who emphasizes investing in treatment options for people suffering from addiction and creating educational and economic opportunities—rather than burdening taxpayers with the cost of unnecessary incarceration.

This public opinion and county-level research was undertaken as part of Vera’s In Our Backyards initiative, which is focused on the high incarceration rates in rural counties and small cities across America. While jail incarceration in many big cities has leveled off or decreased in the last two decades, thousands of smaller cities and towns are now grappling with rising incarceration rates, and some of the most outsized jails. Without addressing the shifting geography of incarceration, national gains could be totally eroded by deepening problems in overlooked communities across the country.


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.


GQRR is a national research and polling organization that serves candidates, businesses and non-profits throughout the country.

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