America’s eyes are on the justice system this year as demonstrators protest police brutality and advocates raise concerns about the treatment of inmates during the global coronavirus pandemic.
Because of the growing awareness, the Reflective Democracy Campaign analyzed data on elected sheriffs around the U.S. It compiled its findings into a report, “Confronting the Demographics of Power: America’s Sheriffs,” Josh Gordon, an account executive at BerlinRosen — the campaign’s public relations partner — who focuses on criminal justice reform, wrote in a news release.
The Reflective Democracy Campaign is an organization that researches the demographics of the country’s elected officials to determine “the structural barriers that still prevent a fair distribution of political power,” according to its website. Its latest report is a demographic profile of the nation’s 3,000 elected sheriffs, who operate under less oversight than local police departments, and how they impact public health and safety, the release says.
Among the report’s findings, the most notable is that white men make up 30% of the U.S. population, but 90% of the nation’s sheriffs are white men, according to Reflective Democracy.
“Sheriff demographics are gravely unbalanced: While African Americans are confined to jail at over three times the rate of white Americans, only five percent of sheriffs are African Americans,” the report said. “And even as the number of women in jail trends higher, fewer than three percent of sheriffs are women.”
The report also found that 50% of people in jail are people of color, and the vast majority have not been given a trial. Over 60% of jail populations also cannot pay bail, according to the report.
“Given the large body of research showing that law enforcement policies and practices affect people of color disproportionately and unfairly, a policing system comprised nearly entirely of white men is a system in need of change,” the report says.
The number of sheriffs in a state varies, but the average number of elected sheriffs per state is 60, according to the report. Texas has the most sheriffs (251), while four states — Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii and Rhode Island — and Washington, D.C., have no elected sheriffs, the report says.
“The alarmingly skewed demographics of sheriffs suggest a system hard-wired for abuse, and their track record of mistreating women and people of color confirms it,” the report says.
The report looks at 3,036 sheriffs by reviewing voter files and other public records such as census data, according to Reflective Democracy.
What impact does that have on communities?
Sheriffs play many roles in a community, including residential eviction oversight, domestic violence calls, traffic stops, poll place monitoring and criminal investigations, the report says. They also enforce public health regulations, a role especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the report.
Sheriffs have more discretion when it comes to law enforcement — at least 60 sheriffs from New Mexico to Wisconsin have chosen not to enforce COVID-19 related restrictions, the report says. Sheriffs have also refused to enforce certain gun control measures, federal land regulations and other laws they disagree with, according to the report.
Sheriffs can do that because they are primarily governed by the state Constitution, which gives them the power to “act with unique impunity,” the report says. Sheriffs also run unopposed in their elections about 60% of the time, according to the report.
“Sheriffs in America are singularly troubling. They have unparalleled autonomy and tremendous power, and that power is concentrated overwhelmingly in the hands of white men,” Brenda Choresi Carter, Reflective Democracy Campaign Director, said in the release. “As the primary law-enforcement officers for large parts of the country, they routinely make life-or-death decisions for their communities — especially communities of color, who are disproportionately affected, and too often abused, by law enforcement. As policing in America faces a long-overdue reckoning, it’s time that we grapple with the role of sheriffs and make them far more accountable to voters and reflective of their communities.”
Sheriffs have the power to reduce jail populations, a common concern during the pandemic, according to the report. But “the absence of official oversight means many sheriffs are free to keep their jails full, all but guaranteeing their facilities will become epicenters of infection,” the report says.
The circumstances can change if sheriffs are held more accountable, and that can be done through competitive elections, according to the report.
“In competitive elections for sheriff, our data show that diverse candidates who reflect all their constituents are winning,” the report said.
Editor’s note: This story, photo and headline were updated on Saturday, June 6.