The jails of rural Georgia counties are filled mostly with people accused of low-level crimes, like violating probation and driving on a suspended license, rather than violent offenders or dangerous drivers, according to a recent report. 

Researchers from the University of Georgia Rural Jails Research Hub analyzed jail roster data provided by sheriff’s offices from Decatur, Early, Greene, Habersham, Sumter, Towns, and Treutlen counties between January 2019 and June 2020. The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based group that advocates for ending mass incarceration, funded the grant for the UGA research and also published the findings last month

“Motor vehicle or traffic-related charges were the most frequent charges, often due to unpaid fines stemming from license suspensions rather than dangerous driving,” the UGA researchers found across the 7 counties. More than half of those charged were Black, the group said.  

Probation violations – without any new criminal accusations – made up 9% to 15% of all jail admissions, where probation violation was the sole or most serious offense, according to the Vera Institute. The findings also showed drug possession, users of drugs, outweighed drug trafficking, those who sell drugs, in terms of jail population, the study said.

The Vera Institute’s interpretation of the data is that money from these Georgia counties would be better spent on community solutions that can lessen poverty and addiction, which contribute to crime, rather than spending it on jails, which can worsen outcomes, the group says. 

Map of Georgia counties in jails study
Map of counties studied by UGA researchers looking into rural jail populations.

The data fit into a statewide debate ignited during the race for governor, where recently re-elected Gov. Brian Kemp has pledged to prohibit no-cash bail for people with a proven history of failing to appear in court in his second term. 

Kemp said ending no-cash bail would “help stop the revolving door of criminals getting back out onto our streets,” he said in a press release about his proposals. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, sought to abolish cash bail which requires payment to get out of jail for low-level offenses. Abrams said the policy worsened poverty and crime. 

The conversations about rural jail funding translate to Coastal Georgia’s counties as well, many of which are not rural but have lower population densities than most urban counties. 

In September 2022, the Camden County Detention Center reported its number of inmates as percentage of capacity at 117%, according to the most recent Georgia Department of Community Affairs Monthly Jail Reports. Of those inmates, 94% of them were awaiting trial for the crime they’ve been charged with.

McIntosh County’s jail reported its inmate capacity percentage at 76%. The jail in Liberty County reported 74%, the numbers show.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...