This article was originally published by The University of Chicago Law Review Online. The following is the introduction. Footnotes have been omitted.
The COVID-19 pandemic is imposing typically rural practice constraints on the United States’ urban and suburban criminal court systems. This “ruralization” of criminal practice offers lawyers, policymakers, and researchers a window into the challenges and opportunities that inhere in rural systems. This is no small matter. For decades, lawmakers, researchers, reformers, and philanthropists have overlooked, undertheorized, and underfunded rural criminal legal systems—and have done so at great peril. Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s population lives in nonmetropolitan areas, where the opioid addiction crisis rages. Rural incarceration increasingly drives mass incarceration. The U.S. countryside warehouses the nation’s prison populations, and rural pretrial detention rates continue to rise. Indeed, the success of criminal justice reforms depends in part on our ability to address the incarceration crisis in rural America.
Now, the nation’s criminal legal systems are paying a new price for our failure to study rural systems. Criminal legal systems of all sizes are scrambling to select, implement, and study “new” distance adaptations that are old hat to rural practitioners. Rural systems have decades of experience navigating criminal practice in a (geographically) distanced environment. Unfortunately, a national failure to research these innovations means that we have missed critical opportunities to learn about what works—and what does not—in distance-constrained criminal practice.
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