While large cities across America have been slowly reducing prison admissions over the last decade, rural areas have been locking up a disproportionately high amount of people, a New York Times analysis found last week.
People who live in small counties are now 50% more likely to go to prison than those who live in urban areas, according to data from the Department of Justice’s National Corrections Reporting Program.
But it’s not because more crimes are committed in rural areas – the FBI has found that crime rates have dropped fairly evenly in both rural and urban parts of the country.
Instead, the major factor in prison admission rates is prosecutorial discretion, the Times found. Prosecutors in large cities tend to refer low-level drug offenders to probation or treatment, whereas those in rural areas frequently sentence those offenders more harshly.
Rural areas hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, in particular, have been at the forefront of the trend.
Dearborn County, Indiana, which has a 97% white population, sends more people to prison per capita than nearly any other county in the country – frequently for drug offenses. The county has long been struggling with a heroin crisis, which its prosecutor, Aaron Negangard, has combated aggressively.
The nearby city of Indianapolis, by contrast, reduced its annual prison admissions by 36% between 2006 and 2014, the Times found.
“I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” Negangard said last year, according to the Times. “If you’re not prosecuting, then you’re de facto legalizing it,” he later told the newspaper.
Even despite sentencing reform efforts from state governments to rein in prison admission rates, the laws are often enforced unevenly by prosecutors and judges, according to Peter Wagner, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative.
“This data puts governors and legislative leaders on notice that if they want to put criminal justice reforms into effect, they need to look at how prosecutors use and abuse their discretion,” Wagner told the Times.
“Letting local prosecutors enforce state laws differently throws all notions of equality under the law out the window.”