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Meet the Latinx 19-Year-Old Running for Sheriff in a Majority-White Louisiana Parish

Jose ‘Lil Joe’ Chapa says one way to make Beauregard Parish ‘great again’ is to stop construction of a new jail and divert resources to services that keep people out of lockup altogether.

Jose “Lil Joe” ChapaPhoto illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo courtesy of Jose Chapa’s Facebook.

Jose “Lil Joe” Chapa II, a 19-year-old resident of Beauregard Parish, Louisiana, is running for sheriff with one objective: prevent the construction of a new, bigger jail. The small parish of approximately 35,000 residents should focus on keeping people out of the jail and fix problems with its existing 161-bed facility, Chapa said in an interview with The Appeal.

The original jail was built in 1914, and parish residents referred to the facility as the “hanging jail.” It was given that nickname in 1928, after two men were hanged there for killing a cabdriver. In 1984, the jail was shuttered and became a local tourist attraction.

That same year, a new jail was opened. In 2015, a woman who was detained there sued the parish, alleging that inadequate medical care while she was incarcerated contributed to her unborn child’s death.

But before Chapa can lead the charge against a new jail, he has to convince residents of a majority-white parish to vote for him, a Latinx teenager with no experience in law enforcement, over a field of four police and sheriff’s office veterans. 

On Aug. 16, 36th Judicial District Judge Kerry Anderson ruled against a claim brought by a local newspaper reporter and others claiming that Chapa did not meet residency requirements to run for sheriff.

Chapa’s opponents are retired DeRidder police Chief John Gott, former Beauregard sheriff’s department detective Mark Herford, state police Lieutenant Jim Jacobsen and DeRidder reserve patrol Officer Rob Moreland Sr.

The winner in the Oct. 12 election will manage a sheriff’s department comprising approximately 116 deputies. 

Chapa told The Appeal that construction of the new jail is inevitable if any of his opponents are elected. He discussed his  decision to run for office in a series of recent interviews, which has been edited and condensed.

The Appeal: Do you see yourself as part of a broader decarceration movement, in which people who favor criminal justice reform also want to see fewer people in jails and prisons?

Chapa: What’s the number one saying in America? You’re innocent until proven guilty, right? Well, whether you’re innocent or guilty and you’re in jail, you need to be treated human. You don’t need to be treated like trash because, I mean, we see it all the time.

The Appeal: Is that why you’ve come out against a proposal to build a bigger parish jail?

Chapa: I do not think we need a bigger jail. I’ll stand by that until the day I die. If we need a bigger jail, we have a problem. If our jail is overpopulated, we have a problem. And a lot of all the candidates, you know, they talk about using somebody else’s jail. That’s a problem. I’m going to figure out why people are in the jail. If it’s a bunch of 20-year-olds that are on drugs, or a bunch of 20-year-olds that are speeding, [or] a bunch of 21-year-olds that are doing the wrong thing, in general, we need to calm down and figure out what’s the problem and figure out how to help them.

The Appeal: How would you do that?

Chapa: Maybe get them employed by the sheriff’s office, get some programs going that can keep them busy, keep them acclimated within the parish and with the people, and not keep them in jail.

The Appeal: You seem especially concerned with the needs of Beauregard Parish’s youth—you’re only 19 years old. Do you think that gives you an edge over your opponents?

Chapa: I see things differently than these other guys. These other guys can’t get on the same level with kids that I can. These other candidates can’t get on the same level with older people that I can. I’m young, I have an open mind and I can see where people are coming from easier than most of my elders. I appeal differently. I’m Lil Joe. I’m home. People can talk to me. I’m not stuck up.

The Appeal: Why not run for mayor of a town in Beauregard Parish? What draws you to a high-profile job in law enforcement?

Chapa: Well, my father, he was actually in law enforcement. He was in law enforcement for DeRidder Police Department. My grandfather was in the Army.  I have zero law enforcement background. I’ve never worked for the sheriff’s department. But I’ve always advocated for law enforcement. I’ve always had their backs, even in the bad times. I’m not saying police officers and police departments are always right, but when they are right, I take their side. I’m just here to take the side of the truth.

The Appeal: But do you understand why voters could be concerned that you’ve never worked in law enforcement and may not have the experience necessary to bring the jail reforms you’ve promised?

Chapa: A lot of people think that it’s just about holding a gun, running for sheriff. That’s not the point of this. I am not going to be holding a gun, nor do I want to hold a gun. And I’m not going to be fighting crime, personally. A big part of it would be taking care of all the finances. Make sure that they’re disbursed correctly.

The Appeal: You’ve borrowed President Trump’s catchphrase for your campaign—you want to make Beauregard Parish “great again.” What makes you think it isn’t great?

Chapa: You know, we don’t own slogans. I just want to make Beauregard Parish great again. I was actually born in Houston, Texas. I moved to DeRidder, Louisiana, when I was about 4 years old. And this has been home ever since. I’m Mexican and American Indian. So moving from Houston and coming to a school in a parish like this, where it’s mostly whites, I was always kind of an outsider, I guess you’d say.

The Appeal: Have you felt that law enforcement doesn’t treat everyone equally in Beauregard?

Chapa: You know, in every system there’s going to be weak links. It’s the officer’s discretion to give a ticket or not. I believe that, right there, is taken advantage of. The way that I want to tackle that is to better train my deputies. I want them to be better trained in communication and all around the board in general. And if any of the other candidates get in, I am so confident that it’s not going to get taken care of. It’s going to get worse. So I’m here to get in there and clean actual house. Clean out the weak links, put in strong links, implement the right team to take care of things and treat everybody fairly.

The Appeal: And again, you feel like you’re ready to do that at such a young age?

Chapa: I stand above my peers. I walk a different line and I’m here to make a change. I’m here to be the voice of Beauregard Parish and make the big calls.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the current jail in Beauregard Parish is known as the “hanging jail.” The “hanging jail” was closed in 1984; the current jail was opened that same year on Mayeaux Drive, which is now Bolivar Bishop Drive.