Report finds rural prisons block sentencing reforms at the state level

by

YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak

Bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms has been a major topic of discussion recently. Republicans, traditionally in favor of harsher sentences, are working with Democrats to rethink how, and what kind of crime, we penalize in this country. 

A bipartisan sentencing and corrections bill proposed earlier this month in the U.S. Senate addresses mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders, recidivism reduction programs, solitary confinement for juveniles and more. 

In addition, last year's U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch that votes on punishment guidelines for federal drug crimes, decided that sentencing guidelines for federal drug offenses were too harsh, so they made some changes. (To understand exactly how the changes work, click on this handy guide from The Marshall Project.) Then the Sentencing Commission voted to make the changes retroactive, meaning some people locked up under the previous guidelines could be released. (Again, The Marshall Project explains which prisoners qualify for release and which don't. Hint: it's mostly black and Hispanic men in their mid-30s locked up for crack or meth.)

Long story short, 6,000 federal prisoners will be released before their sentences are up. Two-thirds will first go to halfway houses or home confinement and another third will be deported, the Washington Post reports

However, these reforms do nothing for the 208,000 people in state facilities for drug crimes. In fact, federal inmates are just 13 percent of the national prison population. The vast majority of people behind bars in this country are in state or local institutions, and lowering those numbers with sentencing reform laws might be more difficult, according to a recent study by University of Washington political science professor Rebecca Thorpe. 

According to Thorpe's research, state lawmakers who represent rural districts where prisons are located are more likely to vote against measures (such as marijuana law reform, see below) that would reduce the those populations. 
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"Not only that, but legislators who represent rural districts with correctional facilities are more likely to support harsh sentences than their counterparts in rural districts without prisons and with the same political ideology," she says. 

The reason, Thorpe suggests, is because those lawmakers feel an obligation to keep prisons full because the area often relies on them for jobs and revenue. Another reason is that for some states, including Washington state, prison populations count toward an area's overall population. 

"The prison population increases political power and voting power in rural areas and weakens it in urban areas that are typically poor and have a disproportionate number of minorities living in them," Thorpe says. 

Thorpe's research included an original dataset of voting records for legislators in Washington state, New York and California. Of the three states, Washington showed the least pronounced results, but Thorpe suggests that could be because there are fewer prisons Washington than in the other two states. Or it could be because the political culture in the state places a bigger emphasis on rehabilitative programs like work release. 

So what's the big takeaway? Thorpe says building prisons in small rural areas is ill-advised. "It's short sided and myopic, more of a political solution, and it's a deterrent for other industries to move into the area. It becomes this toxic asset in terms of the way it influences political decision-making regarding criminal justice in those areas of the country."