Jacksonville Sheriff Candidate Discusses Police Oversight, Northampton County DA Race Takes Shape, and More


In This Edition of the Political Report

January 31, 2019:

  • Florida: Candidate for Jacksonville sheriff explains platform on police accountability, civilian review boards, immigration

  • Kansas: Supporters of the Medicaid expansion highlight its link to providing drug treatment

  • Pennsylvania: First deputy DA and chief public defender enter race to replace Northampton DA  

  • Florida, Montana, Wyoming: In GOP-run legislatures, a push to reform marijuana restrictions, repeal the death penalty, curb driver’s license suspensions

You can visit the Appeal: Political Report website to read our latest analyses of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

Florida: Candidate for Jacksonville sheriff lays out platform on police accountability, civilian review boards, immigration

Florida’s Duval County, whose government is consolidated with that of Jacksonville, votes for a sheriff on March 19. Last week, the Political Report talked to Maria Garcia, an organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, about policing practices in this city. This week, we interviewed one of the candidates: Tony Cummings, who is running as a Democrat against Mike Williams, the Republican incumbent.

Cummings, who has worked in the United States Army Military Police and in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, was one of the many candidates to run for sheriff in 2015, when he lost in the first round. This year, Cummings is Williams’s only challenger. In a wide-ranging interview, he explains why he thinks sheriffs contribute to rising incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and why police accountability is a pressing issue to confront. He makes the case for giving citizens “a seat at the table” through the creation of a public accountability office and civilian review boards. Cummings also says that he would maintain the sheriff’s office’s 287(g) contract with ICE and assist the agency in detaining undocumented immigrants, provided that it does not arrest individuals unlawfully. You can read the full interview here. Below is a lightly edited excerpt.

Conversations about mass incarceration and about the high rate of incarceration among African Americans often pinpoint the role of state laws and prosecutors. Do you think that sheriffs and police departments have also played a role in the growth of incarceration and its inequalities? How does that shape how you would run the sheriff’s department if elected?

I do think that the sheriffs play a major role in mass incarceration across the country. As you know, there’s a disproportionate number of arrests of African American citizens. I think that many of those arrests are for low-level offences that officers in many instances would otherwise use discretion, or maybe even a civil citation, to deal with in other places. But they’ve been quite heavy-handed here in Duval County, with the incarceration. I’d like to retrain my officers in the understanding of implicit biases, and how that plays a role in your ability to enforce the law equitably across the board. Bias-based training is exceedingly important if a sheriff wants to reduce mass incarceration. The deputies have to understand that they work for the taxpayers, and in working for the taxpayers you can keep the taxpayers safe without having a heavy-handed enforcement that does nothing at this point but widen the gap of trust between the police and the citizens that they’re trying to actually protect and serve.

As sheriff of Duval County, from day one, I want to make sure that our officers are trained in this area and understand that with the exception of aggravated felonies, they should take the time to consider other options of diversionary action that they can take. A lot of times the officers don’t understand. Going into these situations they think “I have to arrest someone, I have to arrest someone,” when they really don’t have to arrest in many of the cases. They can defer their actions to other entities. I think that the civil citation process, giving out citations, will go a long way in driving down that mass incarceration rate. At least put the civil citation rate at 80 percent and keep it consistent to allow faith-based community groups, community activists, and nonprofits to get involved because we can’t enforce our way out of this problem, out of mass incarceration. We have to make sure that the prevention and intervention side helps us along the way, and they’ll feel comfortable doing that if they know that our officers are trained to recognize that they don’t have to arrest on every offence.

You’ve called for the creation of a public accountability office within the sheriff’s office, and for the creation of civilian review boards. What do you think the role of these entities ought to be, and how would you ensure that they are independent and enjoy actual influence on the policies of the office?

Civilian review boards are the brainchild of our criminal justice system’s lack, or inability to police itself. The sheriff’s office, many times, render a conclusion that an officer will be exonerated in the shooting, and the public is left in the dark because they have many many questions that go unanswered. The state attorney’s review, in many cases, does the same, and the use of force panel does the same. So now we find ourselves with a public that is angry. They’re asking for more transparency and the only way you are going to give it to them is to have a civilian review board. Civilian review board is a very sticky issue, I get it. The police unions don’t support it. Civilians—they want it but they want it with subpoena power. That’s where the fight will begin. If we put a civilian review board in place, I don’t want one that is a rubber stamp. They have to have real power to keep, not only my deputies but myself and my administration in check.

All these things didn’t just pop up overnight. All these things have plagued our criminal justice system for decades. Now the citizens are finally speaking about and they’re saying, “Hey, we don’t want words anymore, we want actions, we want to participate,” and I intend to give them a voice with the civilian review boards.

What about the public accountability office?

The accountability office, I want to make sure that we are adhering to our policies. With no civilian oversight, sometimes—and this is not just in a sheriff’s office organization, this is any organization—you start to make friends, or fellow peers, and peers don’t always do the right thing. They look the other way when things are not being done properly. We don’t want that in law enforcement. We want to weed that behavior out as much as we can. And the only way you’re going to be able to do that is to put [in place] a public accountability office that says, “OK, this is what your policy says, this is what you’ve actually done as sheriff, and you’re outside of your policy, so what are you going to do to correct that?” They’re holding me accountable, they’re holding my directors accountable, they’re holding my chiefs accountable. That’s how you run a transparent police department in the 21st century and anything else is just a shell game.

Read the rest of my interview with Tony Cummings, including his answers on cooperation with ICE, here.

Kansas: Supporters of the Medicaid expansion highlight its link to providing drug treatment

Residents of Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah voted to expand Medicaid in November, and Maine’s new governor expanded her state’s program soon after taking office this month. Could Kansas be next? In 2017, the Republican-run legislature passed legislation expanding Medicaid but it failed to muster the supermajority required to override Governor Sam Brownback’s veto. As of this month, the governor is Laura Kelly, a Democrat who campaigned on expanding Medicaid and sent the legislature an expansion plan this week. Therefore, it would now be enough for expansion supporters to secure majority support. But conservatives made some gains in the legislature in the 2018 elections, the Kansas City Star writes.

In December, the Star’s editorial board argued that expanding Medicaid is essential to making drug addiction a public health issue rather than a carceral one. “You can let drug offenders, whose addictions often lead to other crimes, out of jail without making treatment available, of course, but that does make it much more likely that the ex-offender will wind up right back inside,” the board wrote. “And failing to make medication-assisted treatment available can only hobble the prospect that sentencing reform will work as it’s supposed to and could.”

Governor Kelly echoed this argument in her State of the State address on Jan. 16: She argued that expanding Medicaid would help Kansas confront issues of drug addiction and substance abuse, and so “ease the unsustainable burden on our … criminal justice system.” Eric Russell reports in the Press Herald that Maine’s new governor, Janet Mills, has similarly made Medicaid expansion a cornerstone of her fight against the opioid crisis. (As I wrote in November, Medicaid advocates in Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska connected the dots between access to healthcare, drug addiction, and mass incarceration during the 2018 campaign.)

Pennsylvania: First deputy DA and chief public defender enter race to replace Northampton DA  

John Morganelli, the longtime district attorney of Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania, announced this month that he will not seek re-election in November. Morganelli’s first deputy DA, Terry Houck, and the county’s chief public defender, Nuria DiLuzio, have both announced they will seek the Democratic nomination to replace him in the May 21 primary.

Morganelli, a Democrat known for “tough on crime” politics and hardline stances on immigration, was first elected DA in 1991. That means he oversaw county prosecutions in an era of growing incarceration nationwide. But while Pennsylvania’s statewide incarceration rate grew by 97 percent between 1991 and 2017 according to the Annual Statistical Report released each year by the state’s Department of Corrections, it grew by 364 percent in Northampton County. And the number of people from the county admitted to prison in a given year increased by 842 percent, even while the county’s population grew by 47 percent.

Morganelli’s office responded via email about the role that he thinks prosecutorial policies played in this growth, saying that “any increase in incarceration rates was due primarily to mandatory sentencing laws that increased substantially in the 1990’s” under Republican Governor Tom Ridge. The office added that “the DA has little to do with the ultimate sentence imposed. Judges sentence, not DAs. We do not believe that any ‘policy’ of the DA contributed in any significant [ways] to incarceration rates.” The office further touted the DA’s efforts to promote “diversion programs—like expanding the ARD [Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition] program to allow felony cases into the program. He also led the fight for a Mental Health Court which was implemented at his insistence, and supported the Drug Court. All designed to reduce prison population.”

A past president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Morganelli has defended mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and pushed back on efforts to scale them back. He has argued to “warehouse … young criminals who are on our streets with guns” during “their crime years, which is (ages) 14 to 35.” He is also a prominent defender of capital punishment and a critic of Governor Tom Wolfe’s moratorium on executions. In recent years, he has advocated for prosecutors to use Pennsylvania’s “drug delivery resulting in death” charge against people who have sold drugs tied to a fatal overdose; such prosecution, which can lead to a sentence of decades in prison in Pennsylvania, is on the rise nationwide and Morganelli sees it as essential to fighting the crisis in substance abuse. Since becoming DA, Morganelli lost four elections for attorney general and he also lost the Democratic primary in a U.S. House race in 2018; during that latter race, past positions on immigration, including defending local raids and the denial of driver’s licenses, became a campaign issue.

Houck, the county’s first deputy DA, announced his bid on Jan. 23 in a statement in which he described himself as a “true advocate for victims.” He told LehighValleyLive.com that the impetus behind his candidacy was to “fight for and give a voice to the innocent victims in Northampton County.” The same press release announcing his candidacy also announces an endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge of Easton, Pennsylvania. I asked Houck whether there are aspects of the county system that he believes need overhaul, and whether he views criminal justice reform or mass incarceration as part of his candidacy impetus. In an email response, a spokesperson emphasized continuity with programs already in place and described a desire to deemphasize incarceration for offenses considered to be low-level and non-violent. “The safety of the community has always been his highest priority,” he said via email. “That has meant the fullest prosecution for violent offenders, abusers, and those that victimize the vulnerable. It has also meant working to evolve the role of the prosecutor and the larger justice system in cases where incarceration creates more problems than it solves. Terry has helped bolster diversionary courts that deal specifically with mental health and opioid substance abuse.” The spokesperson added in a follow-up that Houck “will continue to bolster these programs and recognize that the resources of the District Attorney’s office should be used to genuinely make Northampton safer and stand up for victims of violent crime, not to push low-level offenders from vulnerable populations into incarceration or further into crime.”

Also running is Nuria DiLuzio, who heads the county’s public defender’s office and whose campaign launch event on Jan. 14 featured many prominent local politicians, according to the blog Lehigh Valley Ramblings. DiLuzio’s campaign released a statement on Jan. 18 that emphasizes a commitment to fairness, integrity, and “the rights of all involved.” It does not mention specific problems she sees in the county’s criminal justice system, or reforms that she would implement. DiLuzio did not respond to multiple requests for comment on her views about criminal justice reform.

The filing deadline for new candidates is in March, so other Democrats could still announce bids. Tom Carroll, a former assistant prosecutor and the Lehigh Valley Tea Party chairman, is running in the Republican primary, where he could have competition. The Political Report will return to this election in the months ahead.

You can find a standalone version of this story here.

Florida, Montana, Wyoming: In GOP-run legislatures, a push to reform marijuana restrictions, repeal the death penalty, curb driver’s license suspensions

Florida: Ron DeSantis did not articulate precise positions on criminal justice during his campaign for governor in 2018, but in the campaign’s final stretch he appeared to be comfortable with the state’s incarceration rate and hostile toward sentencing reform, according to reporting by Andrew Pantazi in the Florida Times-Union. Since he took office in January, articles have continued probing DeSantis’s views. Samantha Gross writes in the Miami Herald that DeSantis is breaking with his predecessor Rick Scott’s support for the restrictions that the legislature imposed on the legalization of medical marijuana approved by voters in 2016; DeSantis reportedly supports repealing the ban on marijuana taking a smokable form, and is otherwise looking to drop Scott’s legal appeal in defense of these restrictions. In addition, John Kennedy writes in the Florida Times-Union that DeSantis is seen as a wild card between campaign advisers and sheriffs who oppose sentencing reform, and conservative groups and lawmakers like state Senator Jeff Brandes and Americans for Prosperity that wish to push for it in the coming legislative session. Among the latter group’s targets: the state’s mandatory minimum guidelines, its harsh restrictions on early release, and the low threshold for when theft is considered a felony-level offense. The adoption of Amendment 11 by voters in November expanded the range of possible criminal justice reforms by enabling sentencing reforms to be retroactive.

Montana: The ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity have joined forces to support legislation (House Bill 217) that would stop the state of Montana from suspending people’s driver’s licenses for a failure to pay most court fines and fees that have stemmed from unrelated offenses. In introducing the bill, Republican state Representative Casey Knudsen called the practice a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” This Montana push emulates legal and legislative efforts in other states. In July, Maine adopted legislation to end the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for a failure to pay most court fines. And in July, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued a ruling that bars Tennessee from revoking licenses. “If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” Trauger wrote.

Wyoming: A new effort is underway in Wyoming to abolish the death penalty. The state House rejected similar legislation last year, on a vote of 34 to 25, as it had the previous four years. But this year’s bill (House Bill 145), whose main sponsors are Representative Jared Olsen and Senator Brian Boner (both are Republican), has many more co-sponsors than the effort’s past iterations—and one of those co-sponsors is House Speaker Steve Harshman, a Republican. Harshman was not a co-sponsor of the 2018 effort; in fact, he voted against moving the bill forward, as he had in 2016. There is no one on Wyoming’s death row since a federal judge struck down the death sentence of Dale Eaton in 2014. In an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, Olsen argued that the state’s death penalty statutes is nevertheless a drain on the state’s finances and questioned its need as a deterrent. “There are a plethora of legislators who are stuck in the way that this is the only effective way to curb murders, even when the statistics show it’s not,” he said.

You can visit the Political Report’s legislative round-up page for more on legislative debates in states.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!