In both Washington and Georgia, rural justice system stakeholders report struggling to stretch limited resources and express frustration at the lack of alternatives to incarceration in their small communities. Many feel that their rural systems have been overlooked by statewide criminal justice reforms that are often designed to address issues facing larger cities. Sometimes, these broad reforms even result in unintended negative consequences for rural counties. For example, reforms intended to reduce state prison populations have increased pressure on local justice systems without sufficient resources for support and reintegration services.

Over the course of the project, the Washington State University and University of Georgia teams will work to convene criminal justice system stakeholders in rural counties across their states to build a knowledge base of local justice and jail data in rural areas, engage local stakeholders in discussion and analysis of their systems, and facilitate collaborative and data-driven processes to generate possible solutions and policy decisions that are tailored to the specific needs of rural communities.

In Washington state, the project will research how state-level reforms, driven by the more urbanized western side of the state, interact with the local county dynamics in the more rural eastern side. The Washington research team will pay particular attention to the regions’ distinct populations – including college town communities, agricultural and ranching communities, Native Americans, and migrant farmworkers – and its vast geographies and close ties with neighboring Idaho.

In Georgia, the project will address the uneven access to mental health services and the effects of expanded probation supervision in rural counties. Counties in the southern part of Georgia are also relatively distant from state-level debates and have higher concentrations of African American and Latinx populations.

The project also provides capacity-building to local officials and researchers to ensure that these solutions are implemented in the long term. Finally, the research and lessons learned from the project will serve as a model for other rural jurisdictions that are looking for local solutions.

To receive updates about the Rural Jails Research and Policy Network, please email us at ruraljails@vera.org.