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New Report Offers Recommendations For Decarcerating Rural Jails

A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that unnecessarily punitive responses to probation violations, drug use, and poverty are driving the surge in jail populations across Georgia, particularly in rural counties. This comes at a time when jail deaths are surging.

Vera’s research, which is based on the University of Georgia’s analysis of jail roster data from seven rural Georgia counties (Decatur, Early, Greene, Habersham, Sumter, Towns, Treutlen) reveals, among other things, that drug possession charges, particularly cannabis possession, in the state are more common than drug trafficking charges. Probation violations and traffic-related offenses also stand out in the data, with a significant number of charges related to driving on a suspended license. (Georgia is one of just a few states where every single moving violation — be it a speeding ticket or a broken taillight — is a criminal offense.)

The impact of probation on Georgia jail populations is unsurprising, given that our state holds the dubious distinction of the country’s highest rate of people on probation, with more than 1 in 19 adult Georgians on probation or parole supervision. Harsh, carceral enforcement of probation conditions is likely sending a significant number of people to jail for not abiding by unrealistic and stringent conditions of probation. 

Racial disparities in jail populations were also quite stark in all seven counties analyzed, with the proportion of Black people being booked into jails far exceeding the Black percentage of the county population. 

Vera’s report reflects the degree to which the current system discourages safe and data-driven alternatives to caging people. The authors calls on state and local policymakers to reduce rural jail populations by overhauling Georgia’s probation system, strengthening a litany of pretrial services, and eliminating penalties for driving with a suspended license. Crucially, the authors also highlight the danger of policy proposals which would expand a county’s jailing capacity: “Resist proposals for jail expansion or new jail construction and instead invest in local support services…system actors and community advocates should push back on decisions to expand the jail and focus instead on changing local policies to reduce the number of people in the jail.” (Sound familiar? It’s what advocates in Atlanta have been demanding for years with regard to the old city jail.)

Read the report here.