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Why is the USDA subsidizing jails at the expense of rural health care?

Why is the USDA subsidizing jails at the expense of rural health care?
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The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted major holes in the rural health care system. Since 2010, more than 120 rural hospitals have closed nationwide. At the same time, one federal program originally intended to fund rural infrastructure such as hospitals, mental health clinics  and schools is being used to build large jails. Now, rural America is left with not only a health care crisis but a potential ticking time bomb if these jails become hot spots of contagion.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides funding for rural infrastructure through the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program. According to the USDA, the program was designed to subsidize public health infrastructure such as mental health clinics and hospitals in rural areas. In 1996, however, the USDA added detention centers, resulting in more than $360 million of agriculture funds being used for rural jail construction. The USDA’s funding for jails has increased by 200 percent over the past decade while rural infrastructure spending has been cut by one-third. As a result, health care funding has suffered. 

What’s worse is that many new jails are unnecessary given low crime rates. The facilities are larger, on average, than those they replace, creating excess capacity. Some local officials see extra jail cells as revenue opportunities, because federal and state agencies pay per diems to house their detainees. 

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But this type of economic development is a mirage. An old tactic of car salesmen is to get the customer to focus on the low monthly payment rather than the total cost of ownership. Local officials may be hoping taxpayers won’t notice the long-term expense of a facility that is overbuilt and often unnecessary. But even with federal subsidies and short-term cash flows fueled by per diems, the bill eventually comes due. Either taxes must go up or services must be cut, and the taxpayers lose unless they stop these projects before they start. Some are doing just that.

Voters in Michigan’s Shiawassee County rejected a $37 million jail last year, despite projections from the sheriff that it would bring in $3 million in per diem revenue. In Greene County, N.Y., taxpayers forced local officials to back off a plan to expand current jail capacity because it would have required a 13 percent increase in taxes to pay off the $39 million loan. Unfortunately, taxpayers in Fayette County, Ohio, were too late in discovering that the $20 million USDA loan used to triple jail capacity will take 40 years of new taxes to pay off 

Aside from driving up tax rates, subsidizing extra jail capacity creates unintended consequences that are tragically coming into focus as we struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. As more USDA funds for rural infrastructure have been consumed by jail construction, health care infrastructure has been allowed to wither. There are too few hospital beds, shortages of protective equipment, and medical staff pushed to the brink.

Compounding the problem is that the size of new rural jails increases the likelihood for viral outbreaks. Given the close proximity of detainees, large jails are ideal places for COVID-19 to go unabated. But it’s not just the offenders who become potential victims of the virus. Correctional officers are at risk, as are their families and communities when they leave the jails at the end of their shifts.

These facts should be alarming to taxpayers. We can prevent the damage from worsening. Communities across the country are working on jail reforms to reduce incarceration by focusing on those who pose a danger to their communities. This is certainly the right approach fiscally. But by reducing the footprint of rural detention centers, we also can cut the risk of contagion inside the walls. Of course, we still need to hold people accountable, but not every violation needs to fill a jail cell.

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In Pennsylvania, for example, the elected district attorney for York County has created a path for nonviolent and low-level detainees to move to home confinement to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. The prosecutor, David Sunday Jr., is no liberal. He is a tough-on-crime Republican in a typically conservative county.

In Michigan, elected leaders are considering a package of reforms that would increase the use of citations rather than arrests for things such as driving on an expired license or having unpaid parking tickets. Indeed, it is a conservative legislator, Rep. Graham Filler, who is leading the charge in the Great Lake State. Other policymakers are following suit to ensure that jails are correctly sized to hold people we are truly afraid of, rather than all those we’re merely mad at.

But as the country moves in one direction, the USDA continues to go the other way. With the COVID-19 outbreak, the agency must prioritize rural health infrastructure rather than subsidize oversized and unnecessary jails. If they won’t, Congress and the White House should step in and do it for them.

David Safavian is the general counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @DSafavianEsq.

Bernard Kerik was the 40th Police Commissioner of the City of New York, and a former Commissioner of Corrections for New York City. Follow him on Twitter @BernardKerik.