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Counties Spend COVID Relief Funds to Build Jails, Despite Federal Rules

Counties are dipping into funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to build and expand jails and prisons. At least 20 counties in 18 states are using, or want to use, COVID relief money this way, reports The Nation. Their decision to do so violates the spirit, and likely the letter, of the rules governing how relief money can be used. Treasury Department rules ban jurisdictions from using COVID funds to build or expand correctional facilities. That hasn’t stopped local officials in a number of counties from pushing their projects through. “The arrival of ARPA funds has provided an easy way out for counties that previously were having a hard time justifying spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on [building] jails,” said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative.


In Scott County, Ia., the push to use this money to expand a jail for children is happening at a time when the number of juvenile arrests nationwide has fallen 67 percent since 2006 and reached a new low in 2019. Minorities are filling juvenile cells at disproportionately high rates. Iowa, which incarcerates children at rates higher than the national average, ranks eighth in the U.S. for racial disparities in the incarceration of young people, says the Sentencing Project. “I want to spend every one of those ARPA dollars,” said Ken Croken, the only person on the county's five-member board of supervisors to oppose funding the new jail with relief money. “I just don’t want to spend it subsidizing an abusive and racist criminal justice system.”

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