Getty Images

Within the last year, it seems like calls for criminal justice reform have reached a critical mass. President Obama is visiting federal prisons and pardoning more inmates, there's a growing bipartisan consensus for reform in Congress, and thousands of prisoners are being released under sentencing reforms.

But efforts to close prisons or substantially reduce incarceration rates may run up against opposition from rural lawmakers—because for many communities, a prison means jobs.

A new study published in a recent issue of Perspectives on Politics shows that state legislators who have prisons in their districts, and especially rural prisons, are substantially less likely to support reform efforts. Rebecca Thorpe, a University of Washington professor, examined voting records of state lawmakers in New York, California, and Washington. She compiled a dataset of all federal, state, and private prisons in the three states, and compared the voting records of legislators with and without prisons in their districts. Specifically, she looked at voting records on a 2007 proposal to start drug treatment programs and reduce mandatory sentencing laws, which didn't pass:

Legislators from districts with prisons—especially rural districts with prisons—were less likely to support the reform measure. Thorpe controlled for other explaining factors, such as a district's ideology, a legislator's political party, and local crime rates.

Advertisement

The prison industry employs more than 400,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the majority of prisoners in America are from cities, the majority of prisons are located in rural areas. Many of the rural districts Thorpe studied are economically depressed, with communities dependent on a local prison for employment:

Many under-developed rural spaces lack other viable employment options and grow to rely on existing penal institutions as a principal source of jobs and revenue. In short, what began as a politically expedient wave of rural prison development may have inadvertently unleashed a self-reinforcing punishment regime that is uniquely resistant to self-correction.

In other words, the economic viability of these areas are based on putting people in jail. That makes it more difficult for reformers to get the votes they need to end punitive sentencing practices or other tough-on-crime laws.

Advertisement

Moreover, the census counts prisoners as residents of the communities where they are incarcerated, which artificially inflates populations of prison towns and thus gives the legislators representing these areas more political power.

What should be done to fix these problems? Reformers hope to revise census practices. But more broadly, rural areas need jobs that aren't based on locking people up. "Rural prison development supplies jobs, revenue, and crucial wealth transfers in particularly vulnerable areas, tying the immediate stability of lower-class, rural whites to the continued incarceration of predominantly poor urban minorities," Thorpe writes.

If criminal justice reformers hope to gain widespread political support for decreasing our incarceration rate, they shouldn't forget both sides of that equation.

Advertisement

h/t Albert Samaha

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.