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New Jersey’s Sheriff’s Elections Take Shape, While a Key New York Race Goes Uncontested

Also today: Key legislative developments from Virginia, South Dakota, and Iowa

In This Edition of the Political Report

April 11, 2019:

  • New Jersey: Why the 2019 elections for sheriff matter

  • New York: Sheriff who joined ICE program may coast to reelection

  • The politics of prosecutors: quick hits from Boston, Queens, and Arlington County, Virginia

  • Legislative roundup: Virginia will reinstate driver’s licenses, Iowa kills voting rights bill, South Dakota blocks effort to restrict probation

You can also visit the Political Report’s portal into criminal justice in the 2019 elections.

New Jersey: Why the 2019 elections for sheriff matter

Eleven of New Jersey’s 21 counties are voting for their sheriff this year. These elections could shape immigration policy, law enforcement, and jail conditions, and each has drawn multiple candidates—a striking fact since local elections often go uncontested.

The filing deadline for Democratic and Republican candidates passed last week. As part of our coverage of 2019 local elections, the Political Report previews some issues that they will face. Independents have until June 4 to file nominating petitions; June 4 is also the day of the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Twenty-three of the 26 candidates are men. “Sheriff candidates are most likely to emerge out of a policing background and police in the United States are much more likely to [be] men,” Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University who studies sheriffs and women in politics, told me via email. “There’s also a masculinized ethos associated with the office, both from historical patterns and from our national mythology around the office.” 

Jail conditions: In a majority of New Jersey counties, the responsibility of running the local jail lies not with the sheriff but with correctional director appointed by other county officials; that is for instance the case in Hudson County, one of the state’s most populous jurisdictions. However, sheriffs do run the jail and therefore shape detention conditions in five of the counties voting for sheriff this year: Monmouth, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, and Sussex.

Poor detention conditions are major contributors to the high number of jail deaths nationwide. A WNYC investigation reported in November that “New Jersey jails have the highest per-capita death rate among the 30 states with the largest jail populations” but that this has garnered “little attention from the state.” The reporters raise questions about the quality of medical care, and look into a private provider that many county jails contract with. 

Efforts to restrict solitary confinement have stalled so far. Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill in 2016, and legislation introduced in the current session has yet to move forward. The new bill would bar solitary confinement for some groups like pregnant women, and limit it to 15 consecutive days for anyone else. Until legislation passes, or until lawsuits force reform, the officials running carceral centers—including sheriffs in the case of some jails—retain wide discretion over how to use this practice.

Sheriffs can also be gatekeepers for substance use treatment. Jails can provide medical-assisted treatment, and programs can be pursued elsewhere as well. Last week, Morris County Sheriff James Gannon announced an initiative to help people access recovery programs; another county program involves distributing naloxone, an overdose reversing medication. But some sheriffs cite their jails’ drug-related services to oppose other aspects of criminal justice reform. Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden has faulted bail reform on the grounds that people who are promptly released pretrial do not get screened for substance use problems.

Immigration: New Jersey may be a blue state, but county governments have been friendly to ICE. The state attorney general issued a directive in November that restricted local cooperation with the federal agency. It bars law enforcement from assisting ICE operations, inquiring into people’s immigration status, and in some circumstances holding people based on a warrantless ICE request. Where does this leave sheriffs?

The directive does not outright bar ICE’s 287(g) program, which gives local law enforcement the authority to act like federal immigration agents toward people in their custody. Sheriffs now need approval from the attorney general to sign a new 287(g) contract or extend an existing one. Still, they retain a crucial role since they can end a contract at any moment or apply for a new one.

Three New Jersey sheriffs have joined 287(g). Only one is up for re-election this year: Golden, the Republican incumbent in Monmouth. Raymond Dothard, his Democratic challenger, did not respond to an inquiry into his position on the contract. Other sheriffs who run jails could apply for new 287(g) contracts. They could also seek other forms of partnerships, such as renting jail space to ICE.

A sheriff’s politics matter even in areas where the directive cuts their discretion. After all, they are responsible for ensuring that their deputies abide by the new restrictions on what questions they can ask and what operations they can partake in. Erika Nava, an analyst at the New Jersey Policy Perspective, told me that sheriffs “have to implement the guidelines, but in terms of how well it’s implemented, it’ll depend on how sheriffs instruct their staff. … If you don’t train officers correctly, if you’re not holding them to a high standard on the directive, chances are they are going to mess up.”

Some of the sheriffs running for re-election this year have defended ICE cooperation. There is Golden, who participates in 287(g). In Morris County, Gannon has opposed efforts on behalf of local sanctuary reforms. And in Hunterdon County, Sheriff Frederick Brown has championed President Trump’s immigration policies and echoed the president’s rhetoric, blaming “uncontrolled, illegal immigrants” for wage losses, the opioid crisis, and murders.

Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, believes that all candidates should address whether they “think there is a role for sheriffs and local law enforcement to support federal enforcement,” and whether they would be open to entering new partnerships that ICE may come up with. “It has to do with values,” she said.

A full version of this article is available here.

New York: Sheriff who joined ICE program may coast to re-election

A year into President Trump’s presidency, Sheriff Patrick Russo decided to dial up immigration enforcement in Rensselaer County. He joined ICE’s 287(g) program, which authorizes local officers to research the status of people held at the county jail and transfer them to ICE. Rensselaer is now the only New York county in this program. Russo then wrote in a local op-ed that he did not organize a forum on this because his “experience with public forums is that they become a platform for protests.” He also traveled to the White House for an immigration event with Trump.

Immigrant rights groups have targeted 287(g) nationwide. Officials in three populous Maryland and North Carolina counties lost re-election bids in 2018 in contests shaped by their decision to participate in 287(g). All three counties have since left the program.

But the prospect of Rensselaer County repeating that pattern dropped precipitously last week. Russo is up for re-election this year, but no one filed to challenge the Republican by last week’s deadline. This swing county voted twice for President Barack Obama and then for Trump.

Russo, unopposed in his bid for a second four-year term, told the press this week that he intends to renew his county’s 287(g) agreement when it expires in June.

This series of events reflects an environment in which state and national party structures do not pay sufficient attention to local elections that are decisive for issues that are integral to the national discourse, such as ICE’s power. Presidential contenders, a few of whom have outlined platforms on immigration, attract immense attention, but their election is still a year away. Sheriff’s races will decide the scope of ICE’s reach in hundreds of counties this year.

“It is curious that the Democratic Party in Rensselaer County couldn’t be bothered to run anyone against a sheriff who has clearly become an outlier,” Siobhan Burke, an organizer with ICE-Free Capital District and the Troy Sanctuary Campaign, told me.

Still, what paths remain for a change to Rensselaer’s immigration policies?

The door remains ajar for candidates critical of 287(g) to emerge, but this now requires more acrobatics. In addition, the legislature could act to bar 287(g) within the state.

You can read the rest of this Political Report article on cooperation with ICE in New York State here.

The politics of prosecutors: quick hits from Boston, Queens, and Arlington County, Virginia

Suffolk County, Massachusetts: District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced major changes to prosecutorial practices two weeks ago. She has since drawn criticism from Governor Charlie Baker and his public safety secretary Thomas Turco, who expressed worry about safety. Rollins fired back on Sunday at a rally organized in support of her policies. “Miraculously now that this DA wants to end mass incarceration, you want to question the discretion that we have?” she said. “No, you are not.”

Queens, New York: Aaron Morrison reports in The Appeal on the harsh practices that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office pursues toward people on probation and parole. He talked to the six candidates running to replace him about what changes they would implement.

Arlington County and Falls Church, Virginia: A marquee election this year is the June Democratic primary between Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. I interviewed Dehghani-Tafti in February about how she would target mass incarceration. Last week, the two candidates met in a debate, and the blog Blue Virginia published thematized videos corresponding to the debate’s issue segments, including the death penalty, diversion, and racial profiling. This format makes for unusually transparent contrasts by the standards of prosecutorial races.

Legislative roundup: Virginia will reinstate driver’s licenses, Iowa kills voting rights bill, South Dakota blocks effort to restrict probation

Arkansas: Governor Asa Hutchinson has signed into law a bill that shrouds the state’s death penalty process in secrecy and makes it a felony to “recklessly” identify the makers of drugs used for an execution, as the Daily Appeal has reported.

Connecticut: Making a 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, an expense that compounds the isolation of incarcerated people. Rachel Cohen reports for The Intercept on House Bill 6714, which would make calls from prison free. Some local jurisdictions have taken similar steps, either for all people (New York City) or for minors. The Joint Committee on Judiciary held a hearing in March, but held no vote.

Iowa: Iowa will most likely take no action on expanding voting rights this year. It is one of just three states with laws that permanently disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony. In March, the House overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of people who complete a felony conviction. But Republican Senator Brad Zaun, chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, decided last week to sideline the bill; Kira Lerner earlier reported in The Appeal on Zaun’s efforts to dilute the reform. Although Governor Kim Reynolds championed the constitutional amendment, on Friday she said she would not use her executive authority to enfranchise people with completed sentences. As a result, people will still need to file individual pleas for clemency—and Reynolds has only restored the rights of 88 people in this way during her first two years in office—though she eased the application process this year.

South Dakota: Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg mounted a strong but ultimately failed push this year to reverse the 2013 reform with which South Dakota created a presumption of probation for offenses in the two lowest felony classes. People can now only be sentenced to prison if a court identifies circumstances that it says make them a threat. The Urban Institute found two years later that this was helping decrease prison admissions and it proposed further reforms, such as expanding presumptive probation to more offenses. But this year Ravnsborg faulted presumptive probation as too lenient and harmful to deterrence. He championed legislation to repeal it and expand judges’ ability to send people to prison. The state’s prosecutors and sheriffs associations each endorsed the bill, but the Department of Corrections argued that incarcerating more people was unviable and too expensive. The bill died in February when the Senate voted against it. The debate is not settled, however: Ravnsborg said he intends to push for repealing presumptive probation again next year.

Virginia and Montana: Hundreds of thousands of Virginians can regain their driver’s licenses in July. The legislature voted to end their automatic suspension over unpaid fines and fees. Such suspensions trigger further economic and legal hardships for people whose licenses are suspended. (Last week, the Political Report wrote on reform efforts in North Carolina.) But the Associated Press reports that Virginia’s reform expires next year unless it is renewed because it was adopted as a budget amendment. A similar reform stalled in Montana when the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled a bill that had passed the House by a large majority in March. Bills are still pending in Illinois and Minnesota.

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on legislative developments.

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