Who Will Be Your Next Sheriff?

A new project aims to educate Massachusetts voters on how they can have a voice in who’ll be in charge of more than half the state’s incarcerated population for the next six years.

Image of a sheriff's emblem on the side of a marked law enforcement patrol vehicle.  Shot in northern New York State.My other law and crime related images can be found here in my lighbox called:

Photo via iStock.com/Art Wager

You might not think a sheriff’s important to your life, but guess what? Massachusetts sheriffs are in office for six years, even longer than the four years that governors serve. And since this coming November 2016, in all 14 counties, sheriffs are up for reelection, you might want to consider who’s going to manage your county’s prisons and jails, and determine how more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money will be spent.

To that end, for the first time, extensive materials for voters in every Massachusetts county are now available, describing the role of sheriffs and detailing who’s running to be top dog in your county jails and prisons— also called houses of correction (HOC) in the Commonwealth. According to the in-depth fact sheets and candidate questionnaires, it’s clear that what’s at stake include sheriffs’ positions on substance use/mental health programs, medical care, solitary confinement, prisoner education and re-entry services, job training for employees, and where and how women prisoners are held, as well as the sheriffs’ willingness to track data and issue public reports.

BarnstableSheriff Cummings (R) is running for reelection. Randy Azzato (D) is running against him.
BerkshireSheriff Bowler (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
BristolSheriff Hodgson (R) is running unopposed for reelection.
DukesCurrent sheriff Michael McCormack is retiring. Two Democrats are running to replace him, Robert Odgen and Marc Rivers.
EssexCurrent sheriff Frank Cousins is retiring. Thirteen candidates are running to replace him. Democrats: William Castro, Kevin Coppinger, Michael Marks, Edward,O’Reilly, Jerry Robito, and Paul Russell. Republicans: Kenneth Berg, Jeffrey Gallo, James Jajuga, Craig Lane, and Ann Manning-Martin. No Party: Mark Archer and Kevin Leach.
FranklinSheriff Donelan (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
HampdenCurrent Sheriff Michael Ashe is retiring. Five candidates are running to replace him. Democrats: Michael Albano, Tom Ashe, and Nick Cocchi. Republican: John Comerford. No party: James Gill.
HampshireCurrent sheriff Robert Garvey is retiring. Four candidates are running to replace him, Democrats: Patrick Cahillane, Kavern Lewis, and Melissa Perry. Republican: David Isakson
MiddlesexSheriff Koutoujian (D) is running for reelection. Barry Kelleher (D) is running against him.
NantucketSheriff Perelman (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
NorfolkSheriff Bellotti (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
PlymouthSheriff McDonald (R) is running for reelection. Scott Vecchi (D) is running against him.
SuffolkSheriff Tompkins (D) is running for reelection. Alexander Rhalimi (D) is running against him.
WorcesterSheriff Evangelidis (R) is running unopposed for reelection.

Chart information courtesy of the
Sheriffs 2016 Election Project

The materials were developed by an activist group called the Ad Hoc Coalition to Stop New Jails. The group originally organized to oppose the building of new jails in Massachusetts—instead backing measures that support community-based corrections and bail reform. According to Lois Ahrens, founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project (RCPP) and one of the organizers behind the Sheriffs 2016 Election Project, “This is an opportunity to have the races be actually contested. Even in some counties like Plymouth, where a sitting sheriff is running, there’s an opportunity for people to question those sheriffs using our questionnaire and encourage the sheriffs to respond.”

Attorney Barbara J. Dougan, from the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who drafted the materials with help from others in the coalition, said in a telephone interview that sheriffs are “a position with a lot of clout and money in their budgets, but I would bet the average voter knows very little about the Massachusetts county prison system.”

Unlike state prisons where prisoners can receive any term of years up to life, HOCs hold prisoners for up to 2½ years for a single offense. Leslie Walker, an attorney and executive director of the Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services, clarified that HOC sentences “can run after each other so that if prisoners don’t receive parole, some people technically could do five years.” She added that in Massachusetts “some HOCs hold people awaiting trial, and in some counties there are free-standing jails for that purpose.”

Masslive.com reported in June 2016 that a study conducted by the public sector firm, Public Consulting Group (PCG), determined that sheriffs’ budgets vary from county to county. Middlesex and Suffolk have two of the largest operating budgets, respectively, at $68,262,063 (or $68,058 per prisoner) and $104,029,929 (or $65,358 per prisoner). Sheriffs supervise 10,400 prisoners serving HOC sentences and those awaiting trial in jails, and according to an Executive Office of Public Safety 2015 report, as of March 2015, that was approximately half the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts.

Attorney Dougan said sheriffs “have an enormous effect on how people will come out after their sentences. If you want people to lead law abiding lives, then it also should be important for you to see how the sheriffs are running their shops, from a public safety perspective since all county prisoners are coming back home.”

While the Coalition aims to have individuals become more engaged, they also hope to educate legislators and the press through this project. Ahrens said, “In most states, constituents not only elect their sheriff but vote on how much of their tax dollars should go toward building new jails and running them so that voters have more say in what sheriffs do and don’t do. In Massachusetts, elections are the time to hold sheriffs accountable.”

A press release that went out from the Coalition on Monday indicated that materials will be updated after the September 8 primaries to reflect the final slate of candidates.