An interdisciplinary team at the University of Georgia was awarded a grant by the Vera Institute of Justice to address increasing incarceration rates in rural communities and the impact of jailing people who are mentally ill or substance abusers.
The $235,000 grant will allow faculty from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Social Work to develop a “research hub” and work with up to 15 rural Georgia counties to find ways to safely divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues from jails.
The Vera Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports criminal justice reform efforts in 40 states, awarded grants to UGA and Washington State University to develop what the Vera Institute envisions will become its Rural Jails Research and Policy Network.
Local jail populations in rural jurisdictions across America have grown dramatically over the past 45 years, according to the UGA researchers. Many of the minor offenses that land people in jail are the result of poverty, untreated mental illness or substance abuse, and a lack of access to diversionary programs designed to treat them.
The grant will allow the university to develop training programs to help communities make more informed decisions about jail versus treatment options. Participating counties will commit to attend training sessions, engage in discussions about criminal justice issues impacting their communities and share data among themselves and with the university.
The UGA hub will be developed by Sarah Shannon, associate professor of sociology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Beverly Johnson, a faculty member in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, a Public Service and Outreach unit. Also on the project are Orion Mowbray, associate professor in the School of Social Work, and Holly Lynde, a fiscal analyst in the Vinson Institute.
“I’m excited about the collaboration that this grant is designed to build between UGA and 15 rural communities in Georgia,” Shannon said. “Criminal justice reforms at the state level in recent years have been impressive, but this research will bring much-needed attention to rural communities in Georgia. The goal is to help understand and address challenges facing local jails in a way that has not been done before.”
Initial research will focus on six rural Georgia counties and grow to include up to nine more. Researchers will gather quantitative data including but not limited to local arrest statistics, jail admissions, length of stay, charging decisions, bail and probation rates in each county, said Johnson, one of the principal investigators.
“This research will enable the participating counties to use data in new and valuable ways,” Johnson said. “Sheriffs and other local officials will have valid information to inform and educate stakeholders about jail-related issues to help them make policy decisions based on accurate local data.”
Over the course of the project, UGA researchers will develop a knowledge base about the causes of incarceration in rural areas and, as part of its mission as a land-grant university, share information that helps local officials make more informed policy decisions and implement evidence-based practices. Effective programs developed by the university could be replicated in other states.
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