You may have thought of county sheriffs as just another arm of law enforcement, with a mission of serving the people. But Vermont Supreme Court Justice Harold Eaton is here to tell you otherwise. From VTDigger’s “Final Reading” for Feb. 11:
…we understand that not only are the sheriffs a law enforcement agency, they’re also a business, and we simply can’t pay as much as the sheriffs can make doing private contract work. That’s just the reality. We will always be outbid on work if it’s going to the highest bidder.”
The sheriffs are “a business.”
Huh. Bet you didn’t know that.
Update. One of my Twitter acquaintances, Jason Mittell, reminds me that Seven Days did an excellent expose on this very subject back in 2018. And yep, nothing’s changed.
The context for this seemingly egregious piece of information is a story about backlogs in our judicial system. There’s a bigger backlog of family court cases than there was pre-pandemic, but the real strain is on criminal cases. That backlog has increased by 80% since June 2019. And it wasn’t anything to brag about then.
Courthouses have cut operations due to a shortage of security personnel, usually provided by county sheriffs. But if the court system gets outbid, well, tough shit for you and your Constitutional right to a speedy trial.
The legislative response, per VTDigger, is likely to be an increase in pay for courthouse security. Great. Now we’re in a bidding war with the private sector over a public resource.
In truth, sheriffs are a holdover from a much simpler time. They play by a different set of rules. They have a surprising amount of independence that doesn’t really fit well with an organized system of justice. There have been scandals in other states about profiteering by sheriffs, often at the expense of inmates in county jails.
Could we reform the system and kill off the sheriff’s departments? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out. It seems clear that we could, and should, do better.
It’s probably academic anyway. The sheriffs are a very powerful lobby in the Statehouse. Any effort at reining them in would spark a political firestorm. The proof is that one of our Supreme Court Justices says something appalling about sheriffs being answerable only to themselves, and he says it as if it was carved in stone by God himself.
Our sheriffs may not be as corrupt as Boss Hogg or Buford T. Justice, but in their daily operations they are seeking profit ahead of the public good. That’s not right.