Nonviolent offenses, probation violations leading jail admissions in rural Georgia jails, report says

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

Study finds sharp racial disparities in some rural arrests with Blacks disproportionately locked up

Local jails across Georgia on any given day are strained with challenges that have caused problems across the criminal justice system.

A new study out this month that examines Georgia’s rural jails helps explain why this is happening and a key finding reveals that the vast majority of those being held are there for nonviolent offenses, such as driving infractions, drug possession or probation violations. Many of these problems are linked to poverty and the recurring cycle this causes for those in the criminal justice system, according to the study that the Vera Institute of Justice conducted in partnership with researchers from the University of Georgia.

In fact, Georgia leads the nation in the percentage of its population on probation, which only exacerbates the jail overcrowding problem because it leads many to get put back behind bars for relatively minor violations, according to the study.

Racial disparities in some rural jails are stark, with Black people disproportionately booked into custody, the study found. The share of jail admissions of Black citizens is more than twice their share of the population in some counties.

The rate of jail incarceration in rural Georgia counties is higher than the rate for that of metro Atlanta, the state and the nation overall, according to the report. Jails in rural Georgia incarcerate 432 people per 100,000 residents, according to the report. The state overall jails 315 per 100,000 and the national rate is 201 per 100,000. Of the 20 counties in Georgia with the highest jail incarceration rates, 17 are rural or small metro areas.

Researchers at UGA’s Rural Jails Research Hub analyzed jail admission data from seven rural counties scattered across the state, including Early, Greene, Habersham, Sumter, Decatur, Treutlen and Towns counties. According to the research hub’s findings, nonviolent offenses made up as much as 93% of jail admissions between Jan. 2019 and June 2020. Motor vehicle and traffic-related charges were the most frequent charges, making up 38% of total jail admissions. These were “often due to unpaid fines stemming from license suspensions” rather than dangerous driving.

Another 18% of charges were drug-related offenses, and about 14% were probation or parole violations.

But while traffic charges, drug charges and probation violations were the most frequent reason for jail admission in five of counties, violent offenses made up just over 7% of arrests overall during the studied period.

The study was limited to jail booking data and did not include probation agency data, so researchers were not able to differentiate between felony and misdemeanor probation violations.

“We can assume that they would be technical violations because they were not related to new charges,” said Jen Peirce, a researcher at the Vera Institute.

Some argue that the report should have gone deeper than jail booking data in order to gain a better picture as to why nonviolent crimes are resulting in arrests and jail time. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said it’s imperative to “drill down” to see if the reason a person is being jailed might be something beyond the most recent charge levied against them. He said one must look holistically at the full criminal history of people booked into the jail, including their prior convictions.

“They may not be there for a nonviolent insignificant crime. The reason they’re there might be the totality of their criminal records,” he said.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The goals of the study, which was funded by a grant from the Vera Institute, were to gather administrative jail data to see how pretrial decision-making and case processing and supervision practices affect the jail population.

Peirce, who was among the researchers that authored the report, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that another part of the study’s goals was to bring to light that the “criminalization of poverty has consequences for people,” noting that a jail admission can create a financial hardship that is difficult to recover from.

A deeper analysis of Early, Greene, Habersham and Sumter counties, which had more specific data, showed probation violations made up between 9% and 15% and violent charges accounted for between 7% and 17%.

According to the Vera Institute’s report, Georgia has the country’s highest rate of people on probation, with one out of every 19 adults in the state on probation or parole. Peirce said the volume of people in the state on probation increases the likelihood of violations.

“The pathway from probation violation back to jail is standout in Georgia compared to other parts of the country,” she said.

According to Peirce, efforts put into enforcing and remedying probation violations are paving a path for people to return to jail. She said when a person acts out of compliance with the terms of their probation, a probation officer uses their discretion and the tools at their disposal, including jail time, to enforce rules.

“Arrests for probation violations are primarily due to technical violations-- such as missing an appointment, not paying a fee, or failing a drug test--rather than new criminal charges,” the report said.

Peirce said that makes it unsurprising that probation violations appeared among the top three reasons for jail bookings across the four counties included in their deeper analysis.

“Moreover, people booked into jail for a probation violation as their top charge have much longer stays in jail compared to people booked on other charge types—likely due to jail time as a penalty for noncompliance with conditions of probation,” the report said. “This means that even if probation violations make up a modest proportion of jail admissions, people booked on those charges have an outsize effect on the average daily population of the jail.”

In their report, the researchers say their findings show that jail admissions are largely being driven by lower-level offenses and there is room for policy changes that could regulate these sorts of offenses more effectively.

“Broadly, these findings suggest that jail incarceration in these seven rural Georgia counties is driven largely by more minor charge types—such as drug possession and license suspension—and by enforcement of probation violations,” the report said. “Public safety risks associated with these charge types are low and do not require jail incarceration as a response.”

Researchers with Vera also examined jail data from Washington state and reached similar conclusions for that state’s rural jail system, with some variations based on state law and local conditions.