Who Runs the Legislature? Your State Sheriff Association.
This November, Oklahoma voters have the chance to vote in favor of State Question 805, which would disallow the consideration of prior offenses when sentencing a person for an enumerated list of non-violent crimes. SQ 805 is supported by major criminal system reform advocates on the right and left because it would reduce excessive prison sentences. But one group has testified against SQ 805, arguing that it would “create a culture that crime is OK in Oklahoma by reducing penalties for career criminals.” The objectors? The Oklahoma Sheriff Association.
Sheriffs, as elected leaders, are not employees and, therefore, do not belong to labor unions. (Deputies, on the other hand, are considered county employees and do, in many places, belong to local- or state-wide associations whose activities include typical labor organizing similar to those conducted by police unions.) Instead, sheriffs belong to state sheriff associations, which are state coalitions whose members consist of each county sheriff in the state. The sheriffs pay membership dues, which are usually paid by the taxpayers as part of the sheriff office’s expenses. (This is different from other sheriff associations, like the National Sheriff Association, which is a national group, and other groups for border sheriffs and urban sheriffs. While these associations also engage in what I think are problematic lobbying efforts, they don’t exercise the same legislative pull at the state level.)
In many ways they are similar to prosecutor associations, which I have researched before, in that they 1) engage in a great deal of lobbying against criminal reform legislation; and 2) are extremely important to sheriffs in more rural counties. Because the composition of the state association consists of every sheriff, no matter the population or size of the county, rural sheriffs exert a disproportionate influence when compared to the composition of state legislatures or governors. And county size can vary widely. Georgia has over 150 counties; one is just around 120 square miles. Some counties in the West are geographically large, but small in population. Nye County, Nevada, for example is some 18,000+ square miles and less than 50,000 people.
From my own conversations with sheriffs, I have learned that many rely on the state association as a source of news, information, and training, especially those in rural counties. Unsurprisingly, the state associations skew punitive and are a major source of legislative power against reform. Below are a few recent examples:
The Virginia Sheriffs Association successfully lobbied against a bill that would have allowed for civilian oversight of sheriffs’ departments where they were the primary law enforcement agency in cases of excessive violence and shootings. They association is also fighting a bill that would disallow law enforcement from stopping a motorist for “marijuana smell” or a broken taillight. An op-ed by the Association’s president, Sheriff Timothy Carter, opposes a proposal to eliminate qualified immunity.
In California, the California State Sheriffs’ Association vigorously opposed bail reform and now supports Prop 20, which would undo many of the reforms voters approved in the past few years that have reduced prison populations. They also testified against a state provision that allows counties in California to create sheriff oversight commissions.
Many state sheriff associations also have problematic funding sources, including gun sales and donations from the NRA. In Oklahoma, for example, the sheriffs’ association makes money by selling people’s fine debts to collection agencies and taking a finder’s fee. The association also receives funds from a program that repossesses license plates, and this money gets used to wine and dine legislators and pay for full-time lobbyists. The Florida Sheriffs Association sells equipment to its sheriff members and other police departments at a small markup, keeping those profits.
And now we get to the part where I provide my off-the-cuff analysis, for whatever that is worth. As I’ve discussed before, sheriffs have a wide range of experience, with most current sheriffs today having some sort of military or law enforcement career (whether real or fake, apparently). In many places, sheriffs are permitted to profit from their office, a tradition historically rooted in the days when sheriffing was the most lucrative job around because sheriffs could charge a la carte for arresting people, serving papers, and hunting down “fugitives.” And, finally, as a whole, sheriffs seem more scandal-prone than other elected officials. As a result, the input of sheriffs at the state legislative level seems unlikely to produce a fair or dispassionate result. Their analysis is self-serving and suspect, and it often seems designed to set the table for future campaigns where a sheriff can claim he is “tough on crime,” so long as crime is defined as an act that happens by anyone other than the sheriff himself.
The Michigan Sheriff Association blasts Dar Leaf for his comments, separating themselves from his pro-armed insurgent vibe.
Reuters did a huge investigation into jail deaths, showing an increase in the last ten years as well as the huge hole in oversight. This report doesn’t even include rural jails (it was only counties with populations over 250,000), which makes me wonder what that would look like.
A most unusual sheriff campaign video. I really like it.