Getting arrested for a minor crime in rural Washington can result in a week of jail time⁠—and that’s often before the trial and sentencing.

Those jail stays are costly for taxpayers, and they can lead to tarnished reputations and lost jobs for the offenders, according to two Washington State University sociology professors.

“The data is really contrary to what most people think⁠—that there are lots of bad guys locked up in jail,” says James F. Short Distinguished Professor Jennifer Schwartz. “People arrested for serious felonies represent less than 10 percent of the jail population. The rest are probably your neighbors or other community members you don’t consider a safety threat.”

Profile shot of Jennifer Schwartz
Jennifer Schwartz (Courtesy WSU Department of Sociology)

Schwartz and colleague Jennifer Sherman analyzed incarceration data from five Washington counties to find out why people were in jail. The results surprised them. Arrests for a previous failure to appear in court was the top reason people were jailed. Other reasons included misdemeanor assaults, driving under the influence, drug offenses, and driving with a suspended license.

Many of the offenders faced difficulties in resolving their case⁠—such as inability to pay fines or find transportation to court hearings or court-ordered drug treatment. When people cycled in and out of jail, their chances of becoming unemployed and homeless increased.

“We found that trouble navigating the criminal justice system was sucking people back into jail,” Sherman says.

Profile shot of Jennifer Sherman
Jennifer Sherman (Courtesy WSU Department of Sociology)

In Okanogan County, for instance, about 29 percent of pretrial jail bookings were the result of failure to appear. That’s useful data for the county, says Robert Grim (’07 Crim. Jus.), a superior court judge in Okanogan.

“It helps us hold a mirror up to our practices,” Grim says. “Some folks aren’t going to appear in court one way or another. But if there are things we can do to increase their likelihood of appearance⁠—whether that’s remote appearances or automated text message or email reminders⁠—we should look into that.”

The United States has the world’s highest rate of people behind bars, and mass incarceration is typically considered an urban problem driven by long sentences for violent offenders, Schwartz says.

“As a criminologist, I was intrigued by this idea that mass incarceration was becoming a rural problem driven by people spending time in county jails,” she says.

Schwartz and Sherman received a $235,000 grant to research rural incarceration from the Vera Institute of Justice in 2019. To recruit study participants, they hit the road, traveling to sparsely populated counties in central and eastern Washington.

“We just showed up at county jails and asked if we could talk to the sheriff,” Sherman says. “We sat down and explained what we were trying to do.”

In addition to Okanogan County, Ferry, Grant, Kittitas, and Whitman Counties shared their jail data from 2015 to mid-2020. Whatcom County later contracted with WSU for a similar analysis.

Schwartz and graduate students crunched the numbers while Sherman, a rural poverty scholar, conducted interviews. About 50 people who had spent time in jail participated in the interviews, along with jail staff, law enforcement officers, and court officials.

Shortages of public defenders, probation officers, and other structural problems contributed to longer jail times in rural counties, the researchers found. With fewer resources, offenders got less help navigating the system, including advance notice of court dates.

“Small things made a difference,” Sherman says. “People told me, ‘They were sending court notices to my old address, but I’m homeless now.’ Without text messages, people might not know about their court dates.”

Jail time frequently triggered a downward spiral in people’s circumstances, even if they were released without criminal charges.

“You’re still left with court dates and fines and fees and missed work,” Sherman says. “Your relatives are angry at you; your parents are embarrassed. Neighbors saw you get taken away in a cop car, and your name was broadcast on the police scanner.”

A few years ago, Okanogan County looked at an automated system for sending text or email reminders about court dates. Unfortunately, it was too expensive, Grim says. He also envies larger counties’ financial ability to offer pretrial services departments.

Profile shot of Judge Robert Grim
Robert Grim
(Courtesy Okanogan County Superior Court)

“During a pending case, defendants check in for things like electronic monitoring or drug and alcohol testing,” Grim says. “A pretrial services department provides another link that helps defendants navigate the court system.”

Keeping people out of jail also saves taxpayer dollars. The minimum cost to Okanogan County is about $100 per day. If inmates have specialized medical, housing, or dietary needs, the daily cost can run into thousands of dollars.

Sherman and Schwartz are meeting with county stakeholders to discuss local solutions for reducing incarceration rates. In Okanogan County, the meetings connect officials from law enforcement, the jail, courts, and probation with social services providers and nonprofit community groups.

The meetings have been valuable for exchanging ideas, Grim says. Many people are homeless when they leave jail. Being able to connect them with resources for temporary housing or transportation to a drug treatment program can provide the support they need to avoid future jail time, he says.

“The thing I hear most consistently in my interviews is, ‘I’m not a bad person. I’m just a human being who made mistakes,’” Sherman says.


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Rural Jails study (WSU Sociology)