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Rural jails are eager allies in immigration crackdown

Butler County, Kansas, has a population of 65,000 and a largely empty jail. But soon, if the Sheriff’s Office has its way, those beds will be filled by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“Right now we’re just trying to bring in more revenue,” Capt. Erik Ramsey said at a public meeting earlier this month. “We’re aggressively soliciting inmates from ICE.”

In the federal immigration crackdown, small and rural county jails have become an eager and dependable ally. Renting out jail beds has become such a good source of revenue that many counties are expanding their facilities with contracts in mind. But according to a new study by the Vera Institute of Justice, such contracts also are one of the main driving forces behind mass incarceration.

According to the study, jail populations in small and rural counties are exploding, driven largely by an increase in pretrial defendants and in jails renting out beds to outside agencies, like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Those watching President Donald Trump’s crime-fighting efforts may conclude this is a recent trend, but small county jail populations have been growing for decades.

While cities like New York and Los Angeles have decreased or leveled off their jail populations in recent years, small and rural counties in the South and the West have grown them exponentially, according to the study’s authors.

Between 1970 and 2013, researchers found the number of people being held in small and rural county jails prior to trials increased 436 percent. Small and rural county jails have also outpaced other types of jails in admitting people from outside agencies. While urban areas increased this practice 134 percent, and suburban counties 409 percent, small and rural counties increased the number of jail bed rentals by nearly 888 percent, according to the study’s authors. Customers include the Federal Marshals, Bureau of Prisons and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Financial incentives are a driving force and a good reason this trend is likely to continue, according to the study’s authors. Absent bail reform, unlike larger counties, small and rural counties have fewer resources for alternatives to jailing defendants. With immigration detention centers already strained, federal authorities are likely to continue turning to county jails.

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Check out the Vera Institute’s full report for more information.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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