Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

As the governor reforms sheriff payments, all eyes on the legislature and on elections in Etowah and Morgan counties

In This Edition of the Political Report Alabama’s governor reformed a practice that enables some sheriffs to profit from money meant to feed people in jail—but much work remains to end the practice altogether. You’ll read about this and other local stories in today’s newsletter: Alabama: As the governor reforms sheriff payments, all eyes on […]

In This Edition of the Political Report

Alabama’s governor reformed a practice that enables some sheriffs to profit from money meant to feed people in jail—but much work remains to end the practice altogether. You’ll read about this and other local stories in today’s newsletter:

  • Alabama: As the governor reforms sheriff payments, all eyes on the legislature and on elections in Etowah and Morgan counties
  • Massachusetts: Candidates for Boston DA debate in city jail, a national first 
  • Minnesota: ICE looms over Hennepin sheriff’s race, as campaign nears first round
  • Missouri: Reprimanded by the state Supreme Court, district attorney seeks re-election
  • Vermont: Incumbents submit joint response to ACLU’s candidate questionnaire

Note: Sixteen states hold primary elections throughout August, and this newsletter will soon move to a weekly rhythm to bring you more information on these races. Keep in touch via email or Twitter—I welcome your suggestions and feedback!

Alabama: As the governor reforms sheriff payments, all eyes on the legislature and on elections in Etowah and Morgan counties

On July 10, Governor Kay Ivey scaled back a longstanding practice that allows Alabama sheriffs to personally pocket money leftover from jail food funds. Some sheriffs have provided subpar meals and retained hundreds of thousands of dollars for themselves. “Public funds should be used for public purposes,” Ivey said, holding that excess funds should be transferred to government rather than personal accounts.

Ivey’s memorandum only applies to some of the food funds, however: Sheriffs can still keep money meant to purchase the food, though not money meant for food preparation and service, as the Alabama Appleseed Center explains. Ivey asked the legislature to pass legislation fully eliminating the practice, and state Senator Arthur Orr will introduce a bill to this effect in the next legislative session, which begins in 2019. In addition, Attorney General Steve Marshall and many sheriffs have resisted attempts by nonprofits and by the press to obtain public records of how sheriffs have spent jail food funds, and what, if anything, they have pocketed. The Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center are now suing to obtain these records.

The push to end these payments is also playing out in local elections:

Etowah County: Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed $750,000 of food funds over three years, and he bought a $740,000 beach house toward the end of that period, an investigation revealed in March. Three months after this investigation, Entrekin was ousted in the Republican primary, losing in a blowout to Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton. During the campaign, Horton committed to not keeping any food funds.

Morgan County sheriff: This GOP primary also saw the victory of a candidate who pledged to not pocket any food funds. This is significant in light of Morgan County’s recent history: In 2009, a federal judge cited “undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight” to rule that Sheriff Greg Bartlett, who had kept more than $200,000 of food funds, was insufficiently feeding people in jail. Bartlett’s successor Ana Franklin then fought in court to be allowed to keep unspent money. But Franklin did not seek re-election this year, and in June Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett won the Republican primary to replace her. Keeping the leftover money “may be legally right, but it’s ethically and morally wrong,” Puckett said before the primary.

Morgan County referendum: Morgan County may go further this November. Voters will decide in a referendum whether to bar their sheriff from pocketing jail food funds.

Massachusetts: Candidates for Boston DA debate in city jail, a national first

On June 26, the candidates running for District Attorney of Suffolk County (home of Boston) appeared at a forum held inside the Suffolk County House of Correction. They answered questions from people incarcerated in this Boston jail. “This is the first time we’re aware in the nation’s history that we’ve had a campaign forum like this, in a house of corrections,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which organized the event alongside the county sheriff.

Massachusetts’s recent history of repressing the voices of incarcerated people made this a striking event. The Emancipation Initiative, a Massachusetts organization working to restore voting rights, recently outlined this history: In 1997, a group of people held at the MCI-Norfolk prison created a political action committee (PAC) with goals like “providing educational material … [on] the voting records of elected officials as it pertains to prisons” and raising money for candidates “with a track record of being fair and open minded on prisoner issues.” Governor Paul Cellucci and other Massachusetts leaders reacted harshly, rejecting the idea of political activism by incarcerated people, banning PACs in prisons, and championing an amendment to the state constitution that disenfranchised people incarcerated for felony convictions.

But in 2018 the candidates for Suffolk County DA have generally highlighted their reform commitments and the personal credentials that make these commitments credible. That was true of the June 26 forum as well. Deborah Becker reports that a number of candidates detailed “their own experiences with the criminal justice system—ranging from their own arrest to family members’ experiences with addiction.” The ACLU posted a video of the event.

Minnesota: ICE looms over Hennepin sheriff’s race, as campaign nears first round

Sheriff Rich Stanek of Hennepin County (home of Minneapolis) has drawn protests over his cooperation with ICE. His relationship with the federal agency now looms large over his reelection bid, whose first round is in August.

Stanek’s office asks the people it books their birthplace; if they were born outside the United States, he sends their information and fingerprints to an agency that shares them with ICE. Stanek also arranges calls between ICE and foreign-born detainees, reportedly without telling them of their right to refuse. Local officials have criticized these practices, and the county commission recently approved a plan to better inform immigrants of their rights and provide them legal representation. Stanek’s detention policies have also drawn attention: He informs ICE before releasing certain immigrants. Although he doesn’t honor ICE detainer requests out of concern that they are illegal under current law, he has worked with the Trump administration on new plans to facilitate the transfer of undocumented immigrants into ICE’s hands. “We want to find a way to say yes,” he said in 2017 of ICE detainer requests.

Stanek is a Republican sheriff in a Democratic-voting county, a dynamic facilitated by the fact that Minnesota lists no party affiliation in sheriff’s races. Stanek and two Democratic challengers, David Hutchinson and Joseph Banks, are running on a single ballot on August 14. The top two candidates will move on to a November runoff. Hutchinson won the Democratic Farm-Labor Party’s endorsement over Banks at the party’s May convention with the support of 94 percent of delegates.

In challenging Stanek, Hutchinson has used immigration to spark partisan fault lines. “You will notice the difference between a Republican sheriff and a Democratic sheriff, a sheriff who stands with ICE and a sheriff who stands with immigrants,” he said in May. Hutchinson has committed to not asking people their birthplace or immigration status. Banks also wishes to shift immigration policy, committing to “find better ways to serve, inform, and uplift undocumented immigrants.”

Missouri: Reprimanded by state Supreme Court, prosecutor seeks re-election

Platte County’s longtime prosecuting attorney Eric Zahnd was disciplined this year, just months before he is to face voters in this county north of Kansas City. In 2015, Zahnd oversaw the prosecution of a man who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a child. At the sentencing stage, 16 individuals sent letters of support to the court on the man’s behalf. Zahnd’s office then pressured them to withdraw their letters, warning that they would otherwise be exposed for supporting the man. When they didn’t comply, Zahnd released a list of their names and employers. While a judge called this behavior “bullying and intimidation,” Zahnd responds that “transparency” demands that people who “argue for leniency” not do so “outside the public eye.” But a disciplinary panel found Zahnd guilty of misconduct in December 2017; the Missouri Supreme Court then concurred that he had violated ethical rules and issued a reprimand.

Still, this unusual rebuke has not translated into a robust electoral challenge so far this year. Zahnd, a Republican, is seeking a fifth term. For the fourth consecutive time, no Democrat filed to run against him. (While Platte County has gone Republican in the past six presidential races, it occasionally votes Democratic in other elections.)

Zahnd does face opposition in the August 7 GOP primary in the form of state Representative Nick Marshall, who has drawn headlines over the years for his staunchly conservative politics. In 2014, Marshall sought to impeach Governor Jay Nixon for recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages. In 2017, he introduced a bill that exposed protesters blocking a street or interstate highway (as Ferguson protesters had recently done) to misdemeanor or felony charges. But Marshall has run a diminished campaign so far. As of July 23 (three weeks before the primary), he had no campaign website or online platform, and little social media presence. “Has anyone seen or heard from him?” local journalist Ivan Foley asked in a June 28 column. “He seems to have gone MIA.”

Vermont: Incumbents submit joint response to ACLU candidate questionnaire

The ACLU of Vermont has published responses to a policy questionnaire it sent to all candidates running for Vermont’s 14 state’s attorney positions, including the 14 incumbents who are all seeking re-election this year. To meet the ACLU’s request, eight of these incumbents submitted one common response; four others submitted responses that borrowed considerably from that joint document (“without attribution,” the ACLU noted); and two didn’t respond at all.

“We asked them to provide their own responses on the record in their words to their constituents,” James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, told me. “It’s striking that not a single sitting state’s attorney has been willing to do that so far. And it’s disappointing.” Lyall added that voter education questionnaires are a “common feature of elections in this country and a feature of democracy” and so “should not have been perceived as controversial or adversarial.” One state’s attorney complained to the local press in June that the questionnaire was not a “great first step” toward a “collaborative” partnership.

That nearly all incumbents decided to answer as a slate when these are issues on which they enjoy wide discretion also offers a window into the consensus on criminal justice shared by most Vermont prosecutors. This consensus transcends partisan lines, since the core group of coauthors includes five Democrats and three Republicans.

The collaborative document generally defends existing policies and resists calls for significant reform. “The implementation of practices that reduce incarceration are already in place,” its cosigners say when asked what practices they would develop to reduce incarceration. They express support for treatment and diversion programs for people with mental health and addiction issues, but reject the ACLU’s invitation to set a specific de-incarceration goal. They do not commit to end the use of cash bail, and when asked whether they would set “written guidelines for charging and plea bargain practices,” they write that “this question inappropriately assumes that prosecutors overcharge and unfairly pressure defendants into pleas.” They also specify that “no,” they do not believe that—as the questionnaire put it—“prosecutorial practices contribute to racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.”

Most of Vermont’s 14 incumbents are running unopposed this year, which, as I noted in  my previous newsletter, is par for the course. But five races do feature challengers, some of whom returned the questionnaire. One is Elizabeth Betsy Anderson, a Republican running in Lamoille County whose questionnaire responses reject the premise that the incarceration rate is too high or that cash bail should be scaled back. Another is Arnie Gottlieb, who is by contrast mounting a reform-oriented challenge to Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage in the August 14 Democratic primary. I will profile the Gottlieb-Marthage primary before that date; in the meantime, Gottlieb’s and Marthage’s questionnaires are available for further reading.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Thursday, August 2!