Rural justice systems low on pretrial resources leave some to languish, die
Trequelle Vann-Marcouex was just 18 years old when he hanged himself, after being trapped in the Wood County, Wisconsin jail, with no attorney to defend him.
Just days earlier, Vann-Marcouex appeared in court for the first time after his arrest. A teenager standing alone in his baggy jumpsuit, Vann-Marcouex asked the judge for help. He faced robbery charges and more than 60 years in prison.
He thought he would get a public defender and a shot at the equal justice he’d heard about in high school civics class. Instead, the teen was met with a sorry-no-dice attitude. In rural Wood County, public defenders were in short supply.
With no attorney to work on his case, Vann-Marcouex spent the next 11 days in a jail cell — caught in the system’s legal limbo and experiencing emotional hell. When he went back to court, the teenager again asked the judge for an attorney. Again, no lawyer was available.
That night, Vann-Marcouex hanged himself in jail. He struggled and died in a hospital days later.
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If Vann-Marcouex had been arrested in a big city — like Milwaukee or Chicago — things may have played out differently. Instead, Vann-Marcouex fell victim to our national criminal justice blind spot: rural communities where people can wait days, weeks or months for basic services — initial court appearances, attorneys — that city dwellers take for granted.
And the problem isn’t just with defense attorneys. It pervades every aspect of rural justice systems.
Lack of services in rural communities
As criminal justice reform sweeps through America’s cities, it leaves behind America’s heartlands. In rural America, small towns and tribal communities, police and prosecutors, judges and jails, defenders and defendants struggle to create and sustain safe, smart and compassionate criminal justice systems. Too often they fail, not for lack of heart, but for lack of funds.
In urban areas, a pretrial reform movement is attempting to use health, medical and occupational services to divert people out of jail and into alternative criminal justice services. And while some urban areas are struggling to improve, conditions are still far worse for many rural communities. Some of those above mentioned services aren’t even accessible. The nearest drug treatment facility might be an hour away and educational or occupational services may be unsupported.
In urban areas, there is an increasing focus on better policing. From Chicago to Cleveland, in both large and mid-sized cities, agencies focus on community policing, moving away from the discredited “broken windows” method. Rural communities struggle just to keep police on the payroll, much less experiment with new ideas.
Pretrial jail populations are exploding in rural communities. According to the Vera Institute, rural incarceration patterns threaten to overwhelm hard-won urban victories in reducing mass incarceration.
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What explains the explosion?
Part of the answer lies in the unique characteristics of rural criminal justice systems. These systems operate on a small scale, often across long distances. Rural justice resources are stretched to the breaking point. Relatively few criminal justice professionals are responsible for serving large geographic areas.
Victims call 911, wondering if someone will arrive in time. Snowstorms and weather events delay police from going to crime scenes. Rural courthouses often operate with a skeleton staff and judges “ride circuit,” serving multiple courthouses with infrequent court sittings. Defendants wait in jail for weeks, even months, for initial pre-trial hearings.
Rural areas are also legal deserts, where lawyers are few and far between. Rural judges, prosecutors and public defenders are rarely full-time criminal law specialists. Instead, criminal law is simply one part of their general law practice. And often, they must make difficult choices. Should they drive to a remote location to visit a defendant in jail, or should they travel many miles in the other direction to interview a witness?
These problems aren’t new, but there’s still no solution.
Reform through stats
The dearth of data on rural justice is, perhaps, the most significant roadblock on the road to rural criminal justice reform. We just don’t know very much about how rural justice systems work. Federal data collection and criminal justice researchers focus on the largest urban counties. Little to no national data tracks — much less assesses — the country’s thousands of rural criminal justice systems.
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But the anecdotal evidence — the stories of people who live, work and sometimes die in those justice systems, like Vann-Marcouex — show how real the crisis is.
In my work as a public defense advocate and criminal justice researcher, I have seen firsthand the human costs of ignoring rural justice communities. And I know that Vann-Marcouex’s short life, and untimely death, is just one among thousands of rural justice tragedies. Vann-Marcouex’s story — and the stories of others like him — must reach the broader criminal justice reform movement. Rural communities deserve strong, compassionate and sustainable criminal justice systems. We can no longer sit idly by, ignoring rural communities and their justice crises. Our national conversation about criminal justice must embrace the realities of rural criminal justice systems.
The Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, where I am director, has pioneered a stats and stories model to drive improvements in criminal justice. The method seeks to combine rigorous data with stories about real people. But when it comes to rural justice, we don’t have enough data to move the national needle on reform.
What we do know is this: Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.
But talking about these issues isn’t enough. Real change requires investments of human and financial capital. State and federal governments, alongside private philanthropists, need to step up and dig deep to help rural justice communities. They need to put their money into criminal justice systems and the people that they serve.
Criminal justice reformers have abandoned the communities that we herald as the backbone of America: the factory workers in West Virginia, the farmers of Iowa, the ranchers of Wyoming and rural families everywhere. Until we embrace those communities, deaths of despair like Vann-Marcouex’s will continue.
Pamela Metzger is the director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center and professor of law at SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rural justice systems low on pretrial resources leave some to languish
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