Rural jails quietly and steadily have been driving the increase in the number of Americans behind bars, not urban jails, a national study by a justice-reform organization has concluded.
And although new jails are opening or planned around Ohio, including in Franklin and Fairfield counties, to replace crowded, outdated lockups, the state does not quite fit the pattern that researchers found nationally in their study, "Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America." Ohio's rates of pretrial detention in rural counties are not higher than the rates in urban counties.
Researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, used jail data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to analyze and compare incarceration rates over the last 40 years. The data showed that pretrial incarceration rates in 1,936 rural counties -- those with fewer than 250,000 people -- increased 436 percent: from 49 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 265 per 100,000 in 2013.
The Vera Institute of Justice advocates for safely reducing jail incarceration and using alternative methods.
In urban counties, by comparison, pretrial incarceration rates rose from 101 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 200 per 100,000 people in 2013.
The trends do not correspond to an increase in overall crime rates and, in fact, crime rates are substantially lower in rural versus urban counties, researchers Jacob Kang-Brown and Ram Subramanian said in their report, released in June.
Instead, they suggested that rural counties have less public money to spend on criminal justice personnel, pretrial services and diversion programs than their urban counterparts. Rural courts with fewer community-based services may result in rural jails "acting as a default response mechanism to the absence of appropriate local placements," the researchers said.
Some rural counties around the country, particularly in the South and the West, have increasingly turned to renting jail beds to house prisoners from state and federal prisons, other counties and the federal immigration system, the researchers found.
Fairfield County just completed a $35 million project that combines the sheriff's office with a 384-bed jail. The jail replaces three crowded, outdated jail buildings that have recently been holding around 300 inmates. The number fluctuates, but over time has shown a steady increase.
"Our experience locally has been mostly explained by the opiate crisis," said county Commissioner Steve Davis. "Over half of our jail population is in there as a direct or indirect result of opiate use or addiction. I do think that the future is headed towards more of a treatment and rehabilitation approach as opposed to interdiction and incarceration, but by historical standards we're still in the early years of the epidemic, so it's not surprising that the immediate response is interdiction and incarceration."
Davis, a former Fairfield County Republican Party chairman, said he would add a political overlay to the data analyzed in the study.
"It's fairly safe to say that politics in urban areas are distinguishable from rural areas," he said. "There's more of a harder-line approach in the rural areas -- more hang 'em high -- and more of a progressive approach -- give them a hug, treat them -- in the urban areas."
"Fairfield County is certainly a conservative county in its politics," Davis said. "It's a county not known for its progressiveness in dealing with inmates or drugs or how to treat those issues."
Meigs County commissioners also have watched their jail population increase in the rural Ohio River county about 100 miles southeast of Columbus. The commissioners are discussing asking voters in November for a bond issue and a property tax to build and operate a new 70-bed jail to replace the current jail built in the 19th century and able to hold only five inmates. The county has had as many as 48 inmates, and deputies drive them to the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail in Nelsonville, the Washington County jail or jails in other counties. "We send them all over the place, depending on who's got room," said Commissioner Tim Ihle.
"Most people we hold are waiting for court," Ihle said. "It's the opioid epidemic, it's all related to that."
The Licking County jail, which can hold about 332 inmates, has been near capacity in recent weeks. Among the reasons for the uptick, said Sheriff Randy Thorp: the opioid epidemic, an increase in service calls and arrests in the growing county, an increased number of indictments since county Prosecutor Bill Hayes took office in January and new early-release policies.
The new early-release policies were adopted after the May 12 rampage in Kirkersville, during which a man who had recently been released early from jail fatally shot the Kirkersville police chief and two nursing home employees before shooting himself.
"It's kind of like the perfect storm," Thorp said. "Because all these things came together, we kind of feel -- and we certainly hope -- moving forward, the daily inmate population will trend back downward to a more manageable level."
The Licking County jail has rented beds to neighboring counties needing space for inmates, but has stopped the practice because its own inmate population has climbed.
Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smola contributed to this story.