January 30, 2020 | Spotlight

Interdisciplinary project to assess impact of rural incarceration rates

Writer: Roger Nielsen

An interdisciplinary team that includes Institute of Government researchers will explore the rise of incarceration rates in rural Georgia communities and the impact of jailing people who are mentally ill or substance abusers.

Supported by a $235,000 grant from the Vera Institute of Justice, researchers with the Institute of Government, the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Social Work will develop a “research hub” and work with up to 15 rural Georgia counties to find ways to safely divert people with mental health, substance abuse and other contributing issues from jails.

The Vera Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports criminal justice reform efforts in 40 states, awarded grants to UGA and Washington State University to develop what the Vera Institute envisions will become its Rural Jails Research and Policy Network.

Local jail populations in rural jurisdictions across America have grown dramatically over the past 45 years, according to the UGA research team. Many of the minor offenses that land people in jail are the result of poverty or untreated mental illness or substance abuse and a lack of access to diversionary programs designed to treat them.

The grant will allow UGA to develop training programs that help communities make more informed decisions about jail versus treatment options. Participating counties will commit to attend training sessions, engage in discussions about criminal justice issues impacting their communities and share data among themselves and with the university.

The UGA hub will be developed by Institute of Government faculty member Beverly Johnson and Sarah Shannon, associate professor of sociology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, with Orion Mowbray, associate professor in the School of Social Work, and Holly Lynde, a fiscal analyst with the Institute of Government.

“This research will enable the participating counties to use data in new and valuable ways,” said Johnson, one of the principal investigators. “Sheriffs and other local officials will have valid information to inform and educate stakeholders about jail-related issues to help them make policy decisions based on accurate local data.”

In Georgia, the project will address the uneven access to mental health services and the effects of expanded probation supervision in rural counties. Initial research will focus on six rural Georgia counties and grow to include up to nine more. Researchers will gather quantitative data including but not limited to local arrest statistics, jail admissions, length of stay, charging decisions, bail and probation rates in each county.

Over the course of the project, researchers will develop a knowledge base about the causes of incarceration in rural areas and as part of the UGA mission as a land-grant university share information to help local officials make more informed policy decisions and implement evidence-based practices.

Shannon said she is excited about launching the research project.

“Criminal justice reforms at the state level in recent years have been impressive, but this research will bring much-needed attention to rural communities in Georgia. The goal is to help understand and address challenges facing local jails in a way that has not been done before,” she said.

The Vera Institute is developing the Rural Jails Research and Policy Network with support from Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropy that supports research and evidence-based policy in the fields of criminal justice, education, health and public finance.