That was the basic headline (one of them, anyway) in the Upshot section of the New York Times a few days ago, and that news seemed to surprise folks because, I guess, it runs counter to conventional wisdom that urban criminal justice systems--largely driven by racial animus--are the only ones run amok, sending people of color to prison in disproportionate numbers as they do. Here is an excerpt from Josh Keller and Adam Pearce's analysis for the NYT:
A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America’s prison population for the first time since the 1970s. From 2006 to 2014, annual prison admissions dropped 36 percent in Indianapolis; 37 percent in Brooklyn; 69 percent in Los Angeles County; and 93 percent in San Francisco.
But large parts of rural and suburban America — overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison — have gone the opposite direction. Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen, according to a New York Times analysis, which offers a newly detailed look at the geography of American incarceration.The story uses Dearborn County, Indiana, population 50,047, as a case study--selected because it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. As Keller and Pearce summarize, the county "represents the new boom in American prisons: mostly white, rural and politically conservative."
To be clear, that description is of the places sending the people to prison, not (necessarily) of the place(s) where the prisons are located. The rural prison building boom is "old news." Read more here, here and here. No, this is about nonmetropolitan and low-population counties that are arguably over the top when it comes to being tough on crime.
The authors explain that, as recently as a decade ago, local justice systems were about equally likely to send people to prison, regardless of whether located in rural, suburban or urban places. Now, however, those prosecuted in "small counties" are about 50% "more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties."
The story highlights the "law and order" mentality of some small-town prosecutors, elected and out to prove to their constituents that they have essentially a zero tolerance policy on crime. As Dearborn County's elected prosecutor Aaron Negangard expresses it:
I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties. ... That’s how we keep it safe here. ... My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can’t make me. The legislature can’t make me. ... If you’re not prosecuting, then you’re de facto legalizing it.Interestingly, Dearborn County is part of the Cincinnati-Middletown OH-KY-IN Metropolitan Area, so it is, by some measure, "urban." Middletown, incidentally, is the setting for J.D. Vance's memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, a book that has garnered enormous attention this summer. It is an account of white working class decline, in which crime and drug abuse loom large.
There is another aspect of this story about small-population counties, small-town justice systems, and I'll return to it in a second post in a day or two.