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Rural innovation sites showcase best practices in reentry and diversion programs

Reentry support in resource-strapped rural communities is critical for individuals to successfully transition from correctional settings to the community

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By Tara Kunkel

Correctional officers working in jails or community-based settings often see people with substance abuse problems return to incarceration or worse. Those who leave incarceration have a significantly higher rate of fatal overdoses within their first month of reentry.

To avoid this, peer support workers provide reentry support and work with individuals as they transition from correctional settings to the community. Peer support workers also operate diversion programs to keep individuals out of custody.

Research shows incarceration rates and jail admissions in rural communities far outpace those of larger counties. [1] Many of the individuals going to jail in rural communities struggle with substance use with opioid use disorders being a prevalent – and deadly – example. Between 1999 and 2015, drug overdose deaths in rural communities increased at a significantly higher rate than in non-rural areas, with deaths per 100,000 rising to 17.0 in rural communities, compared to 16.2 in urban areas. [2]

In general, rural communities face disparate access to substance use treatment, with issues that include limited transportation, decreased geographical accessibility and fewer overall treatment providers, as well as fewer treatment options.


While rural communities face unique challenges that impact their ability to deliver fair and equitable justice, rural communities also have numerous strengths that help their communities address the needs of their residents.

A national group of rural practitioners, which includes sheriffs, community supervision officers, judges and treatment experts, has launched the Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC) to showcase the strengths of rural communities and highlight the cross-sector collaboration that is a hallmark of rural justice systems.

The Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC) Advisory Council recently announced the selection of an initial group of nine Rural Innovation Sites. These sites are the country’s most innovative rural justice programs that serve as models for other communities. Two out of the nine sites have an especially significant impact on the work of correctional officers and support staff.

1. Public Defender Corporation Recovery Coach Project

The Public Defender Corporation Recovery Coach Project, which operates in 23 counties in West Virginia, connects indigent criminal defendants with substance use disorders. Many of the individuals who are referred to a peer recovery coach are incarcerated at the time of the referral. The recovery coaches help connect individuals upon release to treatment programs which is an important step in reducing overdose risk. After that, the peer coaches follow up with clients 6, 12 and 18 months after referral. Research has found that participating in peer support services may reduce relapse rates, increase treatment engagement in treatment, reduce recidivism and reduce stigma.

In addition to providing direct support to individuals in recovery, peer recovery coaches also help educate the judiciary and other justice stakeholders about substance use treatment and speak at community events to destigmatize talking about addictions.

2. Lazarus Recovery Services

Lazarus Recovery Services provides prevention and recovery support services to 10 North Carolina counties. The program has two mobile clinics outfitted to provide an entire host of on-site services, including intake, counseling services, professional development, screening for HIV and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

To meet the needs of participants, program members are often present in local courtrooms, the courthouse parking lot, or other locations. They also host monthly educational meetings to teach participants specific life skills, such as financial literacy, insurance, health, wellness and strengthening families.


Rural community leaders often don’t have the resources to develop programs from scratch, but many rural justice leaders, like those from the Public Defender Corporation Recovery Coach Project and Lazarus Recovery Services, have found innovative solutions to their complex problems. Before the Rural Justice Collaborative was formed, there was no nationally concerted effort for justice leaders and their collaborators in other sectors to share what they know. The Innovation Sites provide a framework others can build from.

Over the next three years, the Rural Justice Collaborative will work with all nine Innovation Sites to create educational materials so other rural communities can incorporate these best practices. Additional rural Innovation Sites will be identified throughout the next year. An online resource center will make the information easily accessible. Funding from the State Justice Initiative provides the Innovation Sites with the ability to connect with other rural communities virtually and participate in regional conferences.


1. Subramanian R, Henrichson C, Kang-Brown J. (2015). In our own backyard: Confronting growth and disparities in American jails. Vera Institute of Justice.

2. Mack KA, Jones CM, Ballesteros MF. (2017). Illicit drug use, illicit drug use disorders, and drug overdose deaths in metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas – United States. American Journal of Transplantation 17(12):3241-3252.

About the author

Tara Kunkel is a former community supervision officer and the Founder and Executive Director at Rulo Strategies and co-directs the Rural Justice Collaborative with Kristina Bryant from the National Center for State Courts.