In 1862, President Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he described to Congress as “the people’s department, in which they feel more directly concerned than in any other.”
Nearly 160 years later, our nation has undergone dramatic growth and seismic shifts, but the USDA endures as an institution. Today the agency not only aims to support the farmers and ranchers who feed our country, but also to strengthen the economy and improve quality of life in all of rural America.
However, a strange development stands at odds with these lofty goals and counter to the agency’s history as a “people’s department.” Over the past 25 years, the USDA has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars meant for “essential community infrastructure” financing bigger jails in the nation’s smallest communities. This is an example of a justice system that has grown to the point of popping the buttons off its original wardrobe.
The USDA’s Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program was created in the name of offering grants and low-interest loans for infrastructure such as emergency services, hospitals, fire stations and community centers in rural areas. In 1996, decades after the program’s creation, the agency funded its first jail and never looked back, funneling $410 million of agriculture funds to at least 54 counties in 22 states over the ensuing decades. In total, the USDA’s funding for jails has increased by more than 200 percent since 2010. This problem has grown under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
As Congress turns to spending bills for 2022, appropriators should renew the original commitment to “the people’s department.” America’s rural communities need support for improved infrastructure, education, health care, recreational opportunities and more. Bigger jails and increased incarceration should not be part of the vocabulary of rural development, and Congress must ensure that the Community Facilities programs reflect this.
There is an inextricable link between rising incarceration and economic decline in small communities. While mass incarceration was once a big-city problem, today the nation’s smaller cities and rural communities suffer the highest incarceration rates. Jail incarceration in the nation’s biggest cities declined 23 percent between 1990 and 2019, while rural jail incarceration rose a staggering 222 percent, followed by a 63 percent increase in smaller cities. By the end of 2020, three in five people in jail were incarcerated in smaller cities or rural counties — even after significant jail population reductions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not the result of big state and federal prisons being sited in small communities, but of poor and mostly unconvicted people being locked up in local jails. Many can’t afford to pay their bail and jails increasingly have become a first-line response to mental health and substance use problems in resource-poor communities.
Incarceration in small town America affects poor and working people of all races, and it’s not making us any safer. Instead, spending time in jail makes people more likely to lose their jobs and housing, strains family relationships, and makes people even more reliant on the public safety net when they are released. High incarceration rates overall weaken communities, and economic decline and increased incarceration are linked to higher rates of drug overdose deaths.
Some USDA-backed jail projects have called for building extra bed space specifically to generate revenue, allowing local jails to incarcerate people on behalf of other counties, the state prison system, or federal authorities. In an era of bipartisan consensus regarding criminal justice reform, federal agencies should not implicitly or explicitly encourage counties to tie their economic futures to incarceration. The USDA simply should not be in the business of building jails.
Jasmine Heiss is the campaign director for the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards project, an initiative exploring the shifting geography of mass incarceration. Follow her on Twitter @JasminitaMH.