A progressive wants to fix one of Louisiana’s deadliest prisons. She has to beat the sheriff first.

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

There are signs that this pattern is changing. In Fort Bend County, Texas, a suburb of Houston, voters elected the first black sheriff since reconstruction in 2020. 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 this position; the election was reduced to postal ballots, which are still being counted. If elected, Hutson would be the first woman to serve as the sheriff of New Orleans and the first black woman.

Yet the barriers to electing progressive sheriffs remain high. Most sheriffs serve for multiple terms, spanning decades, often due to a mixture of institutional entropy and a lack of public awareness of their position. Michael Zoorob, postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University, found in an analysis that sheriffs have an tenure advantage that “far exceeds that of other local offices” such as the city councilor, state representative or mayor. Much of this advantage, Zoorob wrote, stems from a sheriff’s almost uncontrolled discretion, which can include the ability to hire and fire employees at will, award contracts, initiate investigations and to block surveillance. Additionally, sheriff elections, compared to other urban races, tend to depend on more suburban and rural voters who are more likely to deal with criminal justice issues.

The Sheriff’s Race in New Orleans would be another important step in criminal justice reform. Hutson sees himself as part of the larger movement to change the sheriff’s office; she says she is inspired by women like Graziano who have been elected to reform platforms, and she likes to talk about “the magic of black girls”. But she also recognizes that even if she wins, she will have a lot of work to do to overcome the history of abuse in the New Orleans jail.

Louisiana has a long history of high incarceration rates and overbearing sheriffs. In the 19th century, state sheriffs aided in a practice known as convict hiring – the hiring of labor from incarcerated people. Today, sheriffs can run work release programs, in which they keep the bulk of incarcerated workers’ wages, and they can incarcerate people on behalf of state and federal agencies, for which they are paid. government daily allowances. The state also gives sheriffs wide latitude to hire MPs and run their prisons, including contracting with private health care providers. And the state sheriffs association wields significant political power, often lobbying to block criminal justice reforms. “Why would I want to be a governor when I can be a king?” A Louisiana sheriff once asked. (He is commemorated in a 14-foot statue in Metairie.)

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