Politico

She Wants to Fix One of Louisiana’s Deadliest Jails. She Needs to Beat the Sheriff First.

Orignally published on 2021-11-10 09:30:08 by www.politico.com

Almost all these new sheriffs are Black (Kristin Graziano, the new sheriff in Charleston County, is white and an out lesbian), which is significant because sheriffs have historically been predominately white and male, while the populations most affected by sheriffs’ work are disproportionately Black and Latino. A 2020 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that 90 percent of the nation’s sheriffs are white men, while fewer than 3 percent are women.

There are signs that this pattern is changing. In Fort Bend County, Texas, a suburb of Houston, voters in 2020 elected the first Black sheriff since Reconstruction. In the recent sheriff’s election in Erie County, New York, Kimberly Beaty, a former deputy commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department, ran against Republican John Garcia. Beaty would be the first Black woman to hold that office; the election has come down to absentee ballots, which are still being counted. If elected, Hutson would be the first woman to serve as New Orleans sheriff, and the first Black woman.

Still, the barriers to electing progressive sheriffs remain high. Most sheriffs hold office for multiple terms, stretching to decades, often because of a mix of institutional entropy and a lack of public awareness about the office. Michael Zoorob, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University, found in an analysis that sheriffs have an incumbency advantage that “far exceeds that of other local offices” such as city councilor, state representative or mayor. Much of this advantage, Zoorob wrote, comes from a sheriff’s nearly unchecked discretion, which can include the ability to hire and fire employees at will, award contracts, initiate investigations and block oversight. Plus, sheriff’s elections, as compared with other city races, tend to hinge on more suburban and rural voters who are more likely to lean conservative on criminal justice issues.

The sheriff’s race in New Orleans would be another milestone for criminal justice reform. Hutson sees herself as part of the broader movement to change the office of the sheriff; she says she is inspired by women like Graziano who have been elected on reform platforms, and she likes to talk about “Black girl magic.” But she also recognizes that, even if she wins, she will have a lot of work to do to overcome the history of abuses in the New Orleans jail.

Louisiana has a long history of high incarceration rates and heavy-handed sheriffs. In 19th century, the state’s sheriffs assisted in a practice known as convict leasing — the renting out of incarcerated people’s labor. Today, sheriffs can operate work-release programs, in which they keep the bulk of the incarcerated worker’s wages, and they can incarcerate people on behalf of state and federal agencies, for which they receive per diem pay from the government. The state also gives wide latitude to sheriffs to hire deputies and run their jails, including contracting with private health care providers. And the state sheriffs’ association holds significant political power, often lobbying to block criminal justice reforms. “Why would I want to be governor when I can be king?” one Louisiana sheriff once asked. (He is memorialized in a 14-foot statue in Metairie.)

Orignally published on 2021-11-10 09:30:08 by www.politico.com

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