If you listen to the news in America, you might get the impression that innovative reforms within our penal system are a big-city, blue-state experiment, facing a wave of violent crime and mired in partisan controversy.
And you would be wrong.
Americans on both sides of the aisle believe that criminal legal reforms are urgently needed. Incarceration has been shown to cause significant harm to black and brown communities in particular and to security, health and economic mobility in general. Currently, the United States has 1 in 5 people incarcerated worldwide. Not surprisingly, critical penal reform efforts are underway in both cities and rural areas.
As Executive Director of Partners for Justice (PFJ), a non-profit organization that promotes public safety and protects people from incarceration, I work with county leaders large and small, urban and rural, progressive and conservatives. And what we see on the ground challenges today’s hegemonic narratives about criminal law reform.
While many American cities have embarked on exciting legal reforms in recent years, we are now seeing small, rural counties shift into high gear with innovative criminal legal reforms at an unprecedented pace. What may take years to achieve in a big city can be done quickly and in the short term in a smaller jurisdiction and serve as a learning laboratory for large municipalities.
This wave of local reforms is decisive. In 2018, rural counties accounted for the highest incarceration rates in the nation. Although residents of rural, small, and midsize counties make up only 45% of the national population, they accounted for 51% of nationwide arrests and 57% of prison admissions. This was largely due to a decade of concentrated efforts by major cities to reduce their urban prison populations.
As a result of this strong, decades-long push to reform urban criminal legal systems, much of our datasets are currently structured to track progress in urban areas as accurately as possible. Likewise, the media and ordinary Americans pay attention only to the latest urban reforms. But incredible things are happening on the ground in small town America.
First, small counties across the country are redefining public defense as a collaborative, comprehensive service engine of public safety. In doing so, they see a huge opportunity to invest in the mental, physical and emotional well-being of their citizens and in the social mobility of their community. They understand that incarceration erodes the social capital of a community. And they know that a single year behind bars often adds 10 to 15 years to someone physiologically and takes two years off their life expectancy.
Undoubtedly, small county leaders realize this realization much faster than most large county leaders.
In Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the county council delivered on key promises in 2020 by evicting private prison giant GEO Group from its jurisdiction, returning the local jail to public control, installing dynamic new leaders in key departments (including the health department and public defender) and implementing key reforms in its juvenile justice system.
Christopher Welsh, the county’s new chief defender, said he had “a unique opportunity to build on the work of other jurisdictions and take the next step forward in the criminal justice reform movement” . In short, the county ditched outdated security policies, reduced the use of jails, and redefined what its public defenders can do, be, and provide.
Santa Cruz County in California will open its first-ever Public Defender’s Office in July to defend local residents with aggressive courtroom advocacy. These tactics include making sure people have lawyers on their very first appearance, making sure they stay with the same lawyer throughout their time in office, and bringing together cross-disciplinary teams, including PFJ attorneys, who can fight for client goals far beyond the walls of the courthouse.
Santa Cruz County Public Defender Heather Rogers said she views PFJ advocates as essential to developing a culture that embeds holistic advocacy into her office’s client-focused practice. “Our partnership with Partners for Justice will help our defense teams provide our clients with the support they need to achieve their legal and personal goals, as we honor our clients’ experiences, amplify their voices and deliver real solutions to root causes of system involvement,” she says.
Bold changes are also underway in Douglas County, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas. Officials in this small county established their first institutional advocate of any kind and invested in a broad and collaborative vision of what public defense can and should be.
Sam Allison-Natale, the county’s new chief defender, noted that “for the first time in this county, attorneys are meeting with clients at first appearances, a critical step in the process when bail is set.” , we were able to put release plans in place, work with service providers to ensure clients coming out of prison have housing, and help clients access mental health resources. To help meet the even wider range of customer needs, a PFJ team will join the Douglas County team in April.
Cumulatively, the investment these communities have made to improve public safety and social outcomes by prioritizing public defense spending easily exceeds $1 million, but money is not the issue. What is groundbreaking is the commensurate financial commitment these small counties have made to their vision of improving their communities through public advocacy.
And when you consider the gross sums spent on policing in major American cities, imagine all the good that could be done if they took a page off the books of these small counties and transferred funds to public defense.
There is no single solution to the complex web of interconnected problems plaguing our nation’s policing and “criminal justice” system. Yet in many cases it is worth analyzing effective local approaches to solving difficult problems, adjusting them as needed, and trying them out for size in our larger communities.
One thing is certain: We cannot improve our existing system by focusing solely on cities, and to assume that America’s largest cities are the only laboratories for its most promising criminal justice reforms would be a grave mistake. We need to keep an eye on the small towns of this big country, ensuring that cutting-edge criminal justice reforms happening at the local level are at the forefront of our national debates and inform policy decisions in big cities.
Emily Galvin-Almanza is co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justicea new collaborative public defense model designed to empower public defenders nationwide.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.