Skip navigation

Defund Sheriffs - a Toolkit for Organizers 2021

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.
DEFUND
SHERIFFS
A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

SHERIFFS
FOR TRUSTING
COMMUNITIES
trustingsheriffs.org

I-•·

, ,-...
~ -

COMMUNITY
RESOURCE HUB

. .. . FOR SAFETY & ACCOUNTABILITY

CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION 

4

Lamar’s Story

5

PART 1: POLICING AND JAILING, NOT JUST POLICE

6

Role Of The Sheriff

7

Central To State-Sanctioned Violence, Past And Present

9

Constitutional Sheriffs 

10

Central To The History Of The Struggle

11

Overlapping Jurisdictions

12

Obstacle To Collective Liberation

12

PART 2: HOW TO DEFUND YOUR SHERIFF

13

Understand The Role Of Your Sheriff

14

How To Do A Public Records Request

16

Power Of The Sheriff

17

Understand The Sources Of Your Sheriff’s Budget And How To Cut Them 18
Understand How Their Budget Is Spent

20

The Budget Cycle

22

Sketch Out A Big Tent Vision

23

Join The Movement

25

DEFUND SHERIFFS

2

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

The Republic hired the sheriff
"to keep the Republic White—to
keep it free from sin."

JAMES BALDWIN

DEFUND SHERIFFS

3

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

INTRODUCTION
One month before Sandra Bland’s death, Lamar Alexander Johnson
was pulled over in Baker, Louisiana for driving with tinted windows.
Four days later, he was found hanged in his jail cell while in the
custody of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office. His family organized
the community to take to the streets to demand answers, but the
sheriff blocked their every move. Lamar became one of the thousands
of Black Americans who have lost their lives in the hands of sheriffs.
Today, people across the country are protesting
against state violence — against murder, brutality
and mass incarceration, overwhelmingly
perpetrated against Black and brown people. The
slogan on the signs may read "Defund the Police,"
but protesters have built a movement to defund
policing — divesting from all systems that seek
to control and punish Black and brown people
through violence, including jails, police and
prisons. It also means investing in systems that
provide real and equitable access to safety and
justice. The protests have focused at times on
federal agents in Portland and state troopers in
Nashville, on police departments in Minneapolis
and Atlanta, and in communities small and large,
they have focused on sheriffs.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

This toolkit aims to support that movement.
Sheriffs and their deputies are responsible for
approximately 1,000 deaths in jail each year.
They make more than 2 million arrests and
shoot and kill more than 400 people. Sheriff’s
offices are institutions with a legacy of racism, a
track record of violence and limited oversight or
accountability. PART ONE focuses on how sheriffs
fit into the law enforcement landscape and how
defunding them is essential to building safer and
more just communities. PART TWO provides a
step-by step guide for how to defund your local
sheriff, including guidance for understanding
budgets, identifying leverage points and defining
an alternative vision. Because sheriff’s offices
have enormous autonomy (often enshrined in
state constitutions and occasionally, but rarely,
checked by a county board), change starts with
campaigns in your community. We hope this
resource is helpful to anyone trying to start, join
or support a defund sheriffs campaign.

4

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

LAMAR’S STORY
On May 26, 2015, Lamar Alexander Johnson
was driving to pick up his grandmother from a
dialysis appointment.
A police officer stopped him for having tinted
windows and found an old warrant for writing
bad checks. The officer arrested Lamar and
brought him to East Baton Rouge Parish Prison,
a notoriously brutal jail that had claimed the
lives of 14 men in the previous three years.
Lamar’s mother, Linda, called the East Baton
Rouge Sheriff’s Office repeatedly over the
following days, with little response.

Linda still questions his death and the
system that kills so many Black people like
Lamar. Channeling her desire for answers and
accountability into action, she started meeting
with family members of people who had
died in the jail. That group became the East
Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, a
force for changing the justice system in their
Louisiana parish. They have shined a spotlight
on conditions within the jail and led a fight to
cut funding for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s
Office. Lamar would want her to fight for those
changes, Linda says.

Four days after his arrest, witnesses say Lamar
experienced a change in mental status and
the jail responded by putting him in solitary
confinement. On May 30th, deputies found
Lamar hanging in his cell. At every stage,
the Sheriff’s Office obfuscated, throwing up
hurdles to the family seeing him in the hospital
and delaying the coroner’s report, which would
show synthetic THC in Lamar’s bloodstream
from his time in the jail. The Sheriff’s Office
still has not addressed allegations that guards
within the jail are complicit in the distribution
of that synthetic THC — a substance known
to cause psychotic episodes. Nor has the
office addressed the lack of adequate mental
healthcare that allowed Lamar to go without
medical care or supervision during a mental
health crisis.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

5

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

PART 1: POLICING AND
JAILING, NOT JUST POLICE
SHERIFF’S OFFICES ARE COUNTY-WIDE LAW
ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES WITH THREE KEY ROLES:
POLICING: Like police departments, sheriffs and their deputies patrol the streets and
make arrests, particularly in suburban and rural areas. They choose who to arrest and
how to arrest, often perpetuating state violence. They often serve as officers within
schools, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.
JAILING: Whether someone is arrested by a police officer, a sheriff’s deputy or a
state trooper, they’re usually brought to a jail controlled by a sheriff. There are more
than 11 million unique admissions to jail each year and roughly 80% of those people
are detained in jails controlled by sheriffs. With the lack of sufficient health options,
jails have become the default institution for people with mental health issues or
substance use disorder. Those same jails are central to the Immigration and Customs
Enforcement deportation machine (often through voluntary decisions by the sheriff).
CIVIL ENFORCEMENT: Sheriff’s offices enforce evictions and issue permits for
concealed weapons and for political protests.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

6

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

WORKING
WITH ICE

COURT
TRANSPORT

COURT
POLICING

EVICTION
ENFORCEMENT

POLICING
RIMINALIZING
(INCL~g::;L~SSNESS)

ROLE OF
THE SHERIFF
DEFUND SHERIFFS

7

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

POLICING, NOT JUST POLICE
ARRESTS
By Law Enforcement
Agency Type 2016 (Outer)

19-23%
Sheriff's Office

6.05%
State Law
Enforcement
Agency

KILLINGS
By Law Enforcement
Agency Type 2019 (Inner)

2-27%
Special
Jurisdiction

0-07%
Constable
Marshal

72-38%
Local Police Department

The death of Lamar Alexander Johnson at the East
Baton Rouge Parish Prison illustrates one of the
reasons why ending state violence must include
a strategy to defund sheriffs, but there are many
other reasons. Sheriffs have a long, violent history
in the United States. Despite the courageous efforts
of Black and brown communities to fight back,

sheriffs remain in the way of progress on everything
from housing to healthcare justice. Given the
overlapping jurisdiction sheriff’s offices have with
municipal police departments, it’s critical that we
include them in any conversations about defunding
policing. Otherwise, we risk simply replacing one law
enforcement agency with another.

*Killings by university and college police departments omitted.
Police deaths include housing authority police departments.

Killings “Source: Susan Parker of the University of Michigan calculation from
Fatal Encounters data”
Arrests “Source: Aaron Littman of the UCLA Law School calculation from FBI UCR
data”

DEFUND SHERIFFS

8

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

CENTRAL TO STATE-SANCTIONED
VIOLENCE, PAST AND PRESENT
Sheriffs initially gained power in the South through
convict leasing — arresting formerly enslaved people
on bogus charges and selling them to local industry
and agriculture. Sheriffs and their deputies went on to
enable decades of lynchings and prevent Black people
from voting through intimidation and enforcement
of racist voting laws. After the passage of the Voting
Rights Act, the sheriff’s office evolved again, taking a
central role in the mass incarceration and over policing
of Black and brown communities.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

Throughout this history, the sheriff also has existed as
a potent symbol of white supremacy. During Freedom
Summer, a sheriff’s deputy in Mississippi arrested
three civil rights workers and then facilitated their
murder at the hands of klansmen. On Bloody Sunday,
Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse rode in
on horses to beat John Lewis and other protestors.
In recent years, sheriffs like Joe Arpaio in Maricopa
County, AZ and Terry Johnson in Alamance County,
NC have systematically targeted and demonized
Latinx residents. And for each of these sheriffs whose
violence and racism has made headlines, there have
been thousands more who have terrorized their
communities without making the news.

9

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

An increasing number of sheriffs identify with far-right and anti-immigrant movements.
Map Source: Political Research Associates. Click for interactive map.

CONSTITUTIONAL SHERIFFS
All elected sheriffs see their legitimacy deriving at least in part
from the mandate given by voters, but some sheriffs go further,
espousing a particularly dangerous version of the sheriff’s
power that suggests that they don’t need to comply with state or
federal laws. While defying state and federal laws is not actually
constitutional, these sheriffs have used this pretense to lead
the way in refusing to enforce gun control and mask laws. That
interpretation, tracked closely by Political Research Associates, is
associated with white supremacist movements across the country.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

10

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

CENTRAL TO THE HISTORY OF
THE STRUGGLE
While the history of the sheriff is a history of white supremacist
institutions, the history of justice movements is a history of brave
resistance by the very people sheriffs have sought to oppress.
Formerly enslaved people testified in federal court as part of the cases
which tore down convict leasing. In 1908, after Sheriff Joseph Shiff of
Hamilton County, TN permitted a lynching from his jail, Black residents
surged to defeat him in a reelection attempt.
Half a century later, as John Lewis and other civil rights
movement leaders fought to regain the right to vote,
they used the violence of sheriffs like Jim Clark to
expose the brutality of Jim Crow and win the passage
of the Voting Rights Act. Five years after that law’s
passage, newly enfranchised Black voters elected John
Hulett (who had helped lead the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drive
during the 1965 Freedom Summer) as Sheriff of
Lowndes County, Alabama.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

In 2015, Sandra Bland’s death sparked new focus on
state violence against Black women with calls to "Say
Her Name," and in 2016, after more than a decade of
organizing, a coalition called Bazta Arpaio dealt a blow
to anti-immigrant hardliners by defeating Joe Arpaio
in his bid for reelection. With the Black Lives Matter
movement ascendant and protests breaking out after
killings by law enforcement in communities across the
country, organizers are writing the next chapter in this
history of resistance.

11

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

OVERLAPPING JURISDICTIONS
That history also teaches us that mass
incarceration and slavery tend to emerge in new
forms when justice movements target only one
element of the system. Sheriffs, if left unchecked,
threaten to undermine efforts to stop statesanctioned violence. This is because sheriffs have
overlapping jurisdiction and access to nearly
unchecked resources.

In 2020, communities are testing a similar
approach again. Sheriffs in Norfolk, VA and
Boone, MO are lobbying to take control of all
local policing. In Glynn County, GA, there was
an attempt to disband the police department
responsible for the botched investigation into
the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Rather than
weighing alternatives to policing, voters were
asked to decide whether to move the policing
responsibilities to the sheriff’s office before the
referendum was ruled unconstitutional. But
history has shown that shifting policing from
one institution to another will not solve the overpolicing of Black and brown communities. The
only way to avoid the harm of policing and jailing
is to limit contact between all law enforcement
and our communities.

When the municipal government of Camden, NJ
struggled with a budget crisis in 2012, it chose to
abolish its police department, which had a long
history of abuse and neglect. Rather than scaling
back policing in this predominantly Black city, the
government simply shifted policing to the county
level, which didn’t solve issues of abuse.

OBSTACLE TO COLLECTIVE
LIBERATION
In the last year, sheriffs have used their formal
and political power to block criminal justice
reform in Missouri, pass anti-sanctuary
legislation in Florida and enforce millions
of envictions across the country. Sheriffs
increasingly have become an integral part of the
federal government’s mass deportation machine,
as Immigration and Customs Enforcement relies
on sheriffs’ voluntary cooperation to break apart
immigrant families. The Vera Institute of Justice is
tracking increases in mass incarceration driven
by a rural jail boom, where sheriffs have built
new jails, in part with incentives from the federal
government. Sheriffs conduct evictions

DEFUND SHERIFFS

and then often decide how to police the houseless
population. Sheriffs pose a barrier to education
justice advocates concerned about school
resource officers fueling the school-to-prison
pipeline and to housing justice and public health
advocates who want to see their communities
invest in care rather than in jail cells.
More than 150 years after the rise of the convict
leasing system, the sheriff still plays a central role
in many of the systems that oppress Black and
brown communities. Our collective liberation will
require divesting from the institution.

12

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

PART 2: HOW TO DEFUND
YOUR SHERIFF
DEFUNDING YOUR SHERIFF WILL REQUIRE FIRST
UNDERSTANDING ITS ROLE, ANALYZING ITS POWER
AND THEN BUILDING AN ALTERNATIVE VISION FOR
JUSTICE AND SAFETY.
Every campaign will be different. You can start by checking
if anyone in your community is already driving this type of
campaign and by learning the history of police and sheriff
abolition. The following steps cover some of the common
elements and will help you root your campaign in the reality
of your community.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

13

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

UNDERSTAND THE ROLE OF
YOUR SHERIFF
Forty-eight out of 50 states have sheriff systems (all but
Connecticut and Alaska) and 47 of those states (Rhode Island
as the exception), elect their sheriffs. (Some cities, such as New
York City and Cleveland, have appointed sheriffs.)
As described in Part One, most sheriffs patrol, manage jails
and lead civil enforcement, but some serve only one of those
functions and sheriffs’ roles differ even within a state. The key
is to find out your sheriff’s responsibilities

Questions might include ➔

DEFUND SHERIFFS

14

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

_._

DOES MY SHERIFF PATROL MY COMMUNITY?
WHAT PATTERNS EMERGE FROM THEIR POLICING?
In many (but not all) communities, sheriffs and their deputies patrol the streets either
supplementary to or in place of a municipal police department. While on patrol, most
offices stop and search Black and Latinx motorists at disproportionate rates.

DOES MY SHERIFF RUN THE JAIL? ARE THEY BUILDING A NEW JAIL OR
MAKING EFFORTS TO DECREASE JAIL POPULATION? ARE PEOPLE DYING
INSIDE THE JAIL?
Sheriffs run most jails and dictate the safety and conditions within. In addition, sheriffs
play a critical role in deciding who and how many people go to jail, through the power to
choose whether to arrest people and through two additional powers of discretion:
∙

Whether to book people who come into the jail from other jurisdictions.

∙

Whether to release people from the jail to prevent overcrowding and disease.

A sheriff’s discretion varies by state—the map on page 17 outlines how your sheriff might
be able to use their discretion to decrease incarceration.

DOES MY SHERIFF COLLABORATE WITH ICE?
0

In all but a few states, sheriffs have wide discretion over whether and how to collaborate
with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Sheriffs can choose whether to share
information with ICE, whether to hold people on behalf of ICE, and whether to participate
in programs like 287g and the Warrant Service Officers programs, which allow deputies
to act as ICE agents. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center describes seven voluntary
decisions that sheriffs makes in our immigration system. Check out where your sheriff
stands at their map.

WHAT DOES MY SHERIFF DO TO FACILITATE EVICTIONS?
Sheriffs serve eviction notices, enforce eviction orders (including physical removal of
tenants and their belongings) and oversee foreclosure auctions once people are evicted
from their homes. While sheriffs do not play a role in whether courts order evictions,
sheriffs do have some leeway and on rare occasions have placed moratoriums on
evictions in the interest of public safety.

Ill
'"

DOES MY SHERIFF PROVIDE ADDITIONAL POLICING TO PLACES LIKE SCHOOLS
AND COURTS?
School resource officers may come from the sheriff’s office and/or a local police
department. This type of partnership is often brokered with the local public school
system and can be a key link in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Sheriff’s offices often handle courthouse security and transport people to and from the jail.
Some of this information may be easily accessible on the website of your local sheriff’s
office or municipal government. Other information may require a research meeting with
your elected official or a public records request.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

15

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

HOW TO DO A PUBLIC
RECORDS REQUEST
1

The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) has sample templates
for each state that includes the relevant public records law. These might be
offices you’d like to send this request to that are not federal agencies (federal
agencies often have separate online portals for requesting relevant information).
∙
∙
∙

2

3
4
5
6

DEFUND SHERIFFS

County Commissioners
Sheriff’s Office (typically a Public Information Officer is the person who can assist you)
County Budget Office

Prepare the request with your specific information. A note from the NFOIC on
this: Describe the records or information sought with enough detail for the public
agency to respond. Be as specific as your knowledge of the available records will
allow, but it is more important to describe the information that you are seeking.
Reach out to coalition partners for sample requests and/or if you’d like someone
to review your request before submission.
Some agencies will accept emailed requests but some may require that you
submit a physical copy to their office. Occasionally, offices may have their own
online portals to submit requests.
Expect either limited information from the office and/or refusal to provide some
information based on a variety of rationales, like personnel matters, sensitive
information, etc.
Consider whether your campaign will need legal support in the event that the
agency you’re attempting to obtain information from is not responsive.

16

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

HAWAII

0
Sheriffs will say that they have no power to decide who is in jail. The Covid crisis, during which jail populations decreased by more than 10 percent,
demonstrated otherwise. Aaron Littman's research has found an array of discretionary powers of the sheriff, which differ by state.
Adapted from the research of Aaron Littman at UCLA School of Law. Cassandra Cole compiled and synthesized.
"Aaron Littman, Jails, Sheriffs, and Carceral Policymaking, 74 Vanderbilt Law Review (forthcoming 2021)."

POWER OF THE SHERIFF
IN MASS INCARCERATION
Understanding the roles and responsibilities of your sheriff will help
you understand their impact on your community, how to argue for their
defunding and who your allies might be. This knowledge also will help
you understand their spending and revenue sources.
KEY
In every state sheriff’s deputies have discretion to cite and release at arrest.
Jailers have some discretion to cite and release at booking.
Sheriffs have some power to release people from a facility due to illness or overcrowding.
Sheriffs have some power to reduce sentences or allow them to be served in the community.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

17

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

UNDERSTAND THE SOURCES OF
YOUR SHERIFF’S BUDGET AND HOW
TO CUT THEM
The resources in sheriff’s offices usually provide additional
incentive to build new jails and maintain the status quo. However,
while state constitutions often require some level of funding of
sheriff’s offices, organizers can find many leverage points.
The key sources for sheriffs’ budgets include:
COUNTY PROPERTY TAXES AND OTHER
LOCAL REVENUE SOURCES

STATES
Many states house people in local jails after
conviction and then pay local sheriffs for each
person. That potential revenue incentivizes
sheriffs to lobby for harsher sentencing for
misdemeanor crimes. Sheriffs also receive
state grants for providing court security,
policing schools and improving treatment of
substance use disorders.

These comprise the vast majority of sheriffs’
budgets. Every year, sheriffs typically work
with the county manager to prepare a budget
proposal for approval by the local county
government. Like most law enforcement
agencies, sheriff’s offices almost always request
an increase and the county almost always
approves the request. This budget usually comes
from a locality’s general revenue fund, which in
turn comes directly from property taxes. Most
county boards have the power to reject or reduce
a sheriff’s request for additional funding or to
request additional documentation for decision
making purposes. In other places, voters have
direct decision-making about ongoing or onetime spending, such as building a new jail.

FEDERAL AGENCIES
Federal funding programs, including Byrne JAG
and grants from the Department of Justice,
Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of
Justice Assistance, encourage the building
of new jails and the further militarization of
sheriff’s offices. The Vera Institute for Justice has
chronicled that these federal revenue sources
have contributed to a jail boom, providing
incentives to build bigger jails.

NEIGHBORING COUNTIES
When jails run out of space to hold people,
those jails will often pay another sheriff to
jail the people they do not have space for,
providing an additional revenue stream for the
sheriff they contract with.

DEFUND SHERIFFS

18

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

PRIVATE CORPORATIONS AND PEOPLE
WHO ARE INCARCERATED

lives within a strategic plan on the sheriffs’
website or within budget documents on the
county’s website. Many counties include lists
of companies that contract with the local
sheriff’s office within their procurement
departments.

Sheriffs often split the revenue with private
contractors for essential services within the jail.
That revenue comes directly from the people
incarcerated, for making phone calls, or buying
food from the commissary. Jails also award
the contracts to private corporations, and then
money earned from the services go back to the
sheriffs.

Federal (such as the Department of Justice)
and state (such as a Crime Commission)
agencies (such as the Department of Justice
or a Crime Commission) might have funding
sources on their websites as well.

FINES, FEES AND FORFEITURE

THE MECHANISMS FOR DEFUNDING
ARE SPECIFIC TO/CORRESPOND TO
EACH OF THESE FUNDING SOURCES:

Sheriffs receive funds directly from individuals
inside and outside of a jail. For example, law
enforcement sometimes obtains property
through a process of civil asset forfeiture, in
which belongings are seized before someone is
even convicted of a crime. They charge people
inside the jail for commissary and phone bills
and, in some cases, sheriffs charge people
a daily rate for their "stay," which become
mandatory fines even if the individual is not
found guilty of any crime or is later released.

∙
∙
∙
∙
∙

The quality of publicly available information
on a sheriff’s budget differs by place and often
excludes key line items such as contractors
and detailed expenses. Online, the budget often

DEFUND SHERIFFS

A sheriff can request less money or cancel
a contract.
County commissioners may cut line items
Voters can support ballot initiatives that
cut funding or oppose ballot initiatives that
increase funding.
Corporations can eliminate contracts.
The state and federal government can end
grant programs.

Once you’ve figured out where your sheriff gets
funding, you can identify which of these strategies
make the most sense to reduce their budget.

19

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

10.51%

3-04%

Sheriff

Animal Control

1-40%
Animal Shelter

42-8%
Jail

12.62%
Mental
Health

COUNTY
BUDGET

SHERIFF'S
BUDGET

Los Angeles County, CA - 2020

Cabarrus County, NC - 2018

Services

9.7%

--'-'12=----6=2'-'-'-%-~/

OtherAdmin
& Operations

Children &
Family Services

UNDERSTAND HOW YOUR
SHERIFF’S BUDGET IS SPENT
The opposition will always argue that any cuts to sheriffs’ budgets
put the public in danger, so understanding how your sheriff spends
money is important. This will help you to know what can be cut, show
misalignment between funding and values, rebut fearmongering and
construct alternative systems.
QUESTIONS TO ASK INCLUDE:
∙
∙
∙

How much is the sheriff’s office spending on things the community might be upset about (e.g.
military equipment)? How has that changed over time?
How does the sheriff’s office’s spending compare to its outcomes?
Who are the major private contractors to the jail? Has the sheriff taken campaign contributions
from people with a financial interest in the jail?

DEFUND SHERIFFS

20

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

CASE STUDY: LOS ANGELES
In Los Angeles, starting with Dignity and Power
Now (DPN), there has been a decade-long fight to
hold the sheriff accountable. DPN convened the
Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, which advocated
for the establishment of a civilian review board LA
County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC).
When the Coalition found that the COC did not have
sufficient power, community advocates with the
leadership of DPN founder Patrisse Cullors formed
Reform LA Jails which proposed Measure R, a ballot
measure that tasked the COC with developing a
plan and conducting a feasibility study to reduce
the jail population and re-invest jail system cost
into alternatives to incarceration and communitybased systems of care. Additionally, Reform LA Jails’
Measure R provided the COC with the necessary
teeth to fortify their oversight role through the
power of subpoena. The new sheriff, Alex Villanueva,
has continued to defy the new power of subpoena,
and community advocates led by the budget justice
work of the JusticeLA Coalition have gone directly
after his funding sources. JusticeLA successfully
defeated a proposed mental health facility, which
would have put resources into the sheriff’s office
that should go into community care. JusticeLA
successfully pushed for the closure of the LA County
Men’s Central Jail. The community efforts around
defunding the sheriff continue to evolve throughout
LA County. Reform LA Jails has begun building with
community leaders to cancel the contracts between
the sheriff’s office and several towns, where Sheriff
Villanueva’s department is the primary policing
power. The LA County Board of Supervisors and
the Civilian Oversight Commission with the urging
of community advocates have begun exploring
options available to remove Sheriff Villanueva from
his position. At the same time that community
advocates and their allies continue in the fight to
defund the jail and limit the expansive reach of law
enforcement, they have begun to imagine a different
system, led by community. Most recently having
secured the victory of Measure J in November 2020,
requiring 10% of unrestricted county funds (~$1B)
be spent on housing, mental health treatment and
additional community reinvestment.
DEFUND SHERIFFS

tlOS[CVT[
l~Llli COPS

CASE STUDY: EAST BATON ROUGE
The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform
Coalition (EBRPPRC) centers the vision of families
whose loved ones have passed away in the East
Baton Rouge jail. The EBR jail has notoriously terrible
conditions and 41 people have died in the sheriff’s
custody since 2012. Research by EBRPPRC into
the sheriff’s funding sources found that in East
Baton Rouge, like the rest of Louisiana, a property
tax helps to pay for the operations of the sheriff’s
office, contributing more than $16 million annually.
In July 2020, that tax came up for voter approval,
which happens every 10 years. EBRPPRC, working in
coalition with Louisiana and national organizations,
led a campaign to defeat the tax renewal, focusing
on how those funds could instead go to education and
housing. The effort came up short, by five percentage
points, but far exceeded the opposition to the tax in 2010,
when the measure passed with 84% of the vote.

lEAST ]lA'fOl\T
ROllJGlE
RJ)ARJrSJI-li li:llRJr§Ol\T
£ .,.praa:Caol..
!j::::.

~~~H'\ -

~, ...4- _

F

fr o...,.,~,._r , ..._'\ -

1=

✓,o\,...,'-~-A•

:h.... 6\'\ -

A•

"'4-~~....-n- i=-)o.....::,,\.o.. ,..r F'

'
21

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

THE BUDGET CYCLE
The best time to advocate on many fronts, such as for a decrease in
personnel or against the expansion/increased funding of jail facilities,
is during the budget cycle when county property taxes and other local
revenue sources are allocated:
1 YEAR BUDGET CYCLE FALL:

1 YEAR BUDGET CYCLE SUMMER:

The budget officer/county manager provides
direction regarding budget preparation and
submission. This is a time to reach out to county
commissioners/officials to discuss their and your
priorities so they can work to submit changes in
their departmental budgets.

In July, a budget ordinance (which lays out the
budget revenues and expected expenses for the
following fiscal year) is passed. The ordinance sets
the spending priorities and revenue collection
anticipated by the local government entity.
Adjustments to the budget are made throughout
the year depending on a variety of factors.

1 YEAR BUDGET CYCLE EARLY SPRING:

Some contracts come up for renewal throughout
the year. These renewals are opportunities to push
to end the contracts and the funding that comes
with them. Examples include: school resource
officer MOUs, jail contracts and ICE agreements.

Each local department typically submits a budget
request and revenue estimate to the budget
officer/county manager for the upcoming fiscal
year. The budget officer/county manager then
prepares a budget for consideration by the county
commissioners/decision makers (around June). A
budget hearing for public input and discussion is
then announced.

THE SHERIFF’S EXPANSIVE AUTHORITY

SHERIFF'S BUDGET

SHERIFF'S POWER
RARELY EXERCISED
POWER OF REMOVAL

GOVERNOR, ATTORNEY GENERAL,
OR COUNTY JUDGE

DEFUND SHERIFFS

22

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

SKETCH OUT A BIG TENT VISION
DEFUNDING SHERIFFS SHOULD BE AN URGENT PRIORITY
FOR ANYONE CONCERNED WITH MASS INCARCERATION AND
POLICE VIOLENCE.
Defunding also should be an urgent priority
for anyone working on immigration, housing
insecurity, economic justice, racial justice and
many other issues. By sketching a big, bold
vision for your community, you can generate
more power and ensure that success in
defunding the sheriff doesn’t just lead to the
same dollars being used to purchase military
weaponry for other law enforcement agencies
or the same jail cells being filled with different
people.

can be accomplished by creating alternatives
to arrest and incarceration; wide-scale
decriminalization, starting with survival and
drug economies; and sheriffs and elected
officials operating on a presumption that
people being held pretrial should be released.
As described on Page 17, sheriffs have the
formal power to unilaterally decrease jail
populations, which many demonstrated during
the Covid-19 crisis. They can also use cite and
release or desk appearance tickets in place
of pretrial detention. And sheriffs also have
enormous informal power, which they can use
to encourage prosecutors to drop charges and
release people held pretrial. Given sheriffs’
political influence, efforts to divest should
include demands that sheriffs pressure state
lawmakers to decriminalize various crimes,
create alternatives to incarceration and
diversion programs, reduce time sentencing,
end mandatory minimums and money bail
and generally reduce jail populations.

Here are a few key considerations for any
campaign to defund a sheriff’s office:

1. DEFUNDING MEANS
DECRIMINALIZING
Defunding sheriffs can help force our
communities to explore solutions beyond
policing, incarceration and deportation.
However, if there are still 11 million admissions
to jails each year, sheriffs will argue they do
not have the resources to care for people
in jails. That rationale is why defunding
efforts simultaneously must dramatically
reduce jail populations, include widespread
decriminalization efforts and demand an end
to electronic monitoring. These changes start
with ending pretrial detention — as well as
surveillance technology such as electronic
monitoring and risk assessment tools,
which are rapidly emerging as alternatives
to traditional pretrial detention policies
but still reproduce punitive and racially
discriminatory criminal legal practices. Ending
pretrial detention in a transformative way

DEFUND SHERIFFS

2. FREE THEM ALL
A large portion of the sheriff’s budget goes
towards the jail, which has become the
nation’s answer to mental health issues,
housing insecurity, drug crises and a number
of social problems. If this approach is going
to change, the approach has to be holistic
and rooted in solidarity. Because sheriffs are
often financially incentivized to keep jail cells
full, they have a long history of responding
to successful decarceral campaigns by
replacing one incarcerated population with

23

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

another. Breaking this cycle — and ensuring
that some people’s freedom does not come at
the expense of others — requires connecting
the fights of members of our communities
across race, nationality, immigration status
and housing status. This solidarity means
ensuring that cutting one funding source does
not accidently motivate sheriffs to pursue
contracts or grants from state or federal
agencies that simply shift who they are
policing or jailing.

behind and faces evictions — is key. The
United States has enough resources to stop
homelessness, prevent evictions and end the
privatization of profit over people; sheriffs
are at the frontlines of enforcing evictions
and maintaining cycles of homelessness and
housing insecurity.

4. BE CREATIVE AND CLEAR ON THE
ALTERNATIVES
Jails have become the central treatment
facilities for mental health care and substance
use disorder. We must begin to divest from
these failed institutions and instead invest in
community-based answers to safety, mental
health and harm reduction. Defunding sheriff’s
offices should simultaneously merge with
reinvesting funds into community resources
and institutions — including hospitals,
housing, healthcare, economic security,
living-wage employment, education, parks
and community programs. Communities
can imagine alternatives to policing such as
violence interrupters, mental health crisis
responders, homelessness outreach and
prevention teams and non-police traffic
safety alternatives. Providing concrete and
compelling visions of these alternatives will
help win community support. The Interrupting
Criminalization Toolkit provides profiles of
many of the possibilities.

Strategies to defund sheriffs should be
paired with strategies to defund the police,
prosecutors, state troopers and other
parts of the carceral infrastructure. Dream
Defenders and Interrupting Criminalization
have produced incredible toolkits that identify
resources for those campaigns.

3. INVEST IN AFFORDABLE HOUSING
AND STOP EVICTIONS
Housing security is directly linked to the
carceral system and mass evictions are to
come as a result of the economic fallout
from the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore,
divesting from policing also should center
stopping sheriffs from evicting families, which
exposes people to criminalization and arrest.
Developing homeless prevention and creating
alternatives to evictions — such as guaranteed
housing and support when someone falls

DEFUND SHERIFFS

24

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

JOIN THE MOVEMENT
Organizations such as the East Baton Rouge Parish
Prison Reform Coalition and Dignity and Power Now
offer many lessons for running successful defunding
campaigns, and we have included additional
resources below.
The coming year will also provide many opportunities to learn from one
another as movements to defund sheriffs sprout across the country. Since
the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, organizers across the
country have called for defunding of sheriff’s offices. In Snohomish County,
WA, organizers successfully supported budget cuts to the sheriff’s office.
In Alachua County, FL, defunding of the office became a critical issue in
the 2020 election. In Frederick County, MD, organizers paired a call for
decreasing funding with a call to end collaboration with ICE through the
287(g) program. Organizers in Sacramento, Contra Costa and Alameda, CA
have called for defunding or even getting rid of the office all together. By
organizing to defund your sheriff, you can join this national movement that
aims to create a fairer and more just system of public safety that meets the
needs of all of our communities.
Working Families, Faith in Action Fund and Sheriffs for Trusting Communities
are working with organizers to reimagine public safety, stop deportations
and build power, through pressuring county sheriffs.
Defund the Sheriff was co-authored by Philip McHarris, Felicia Arriaga and Max Rose. Many thanks to Jessica
Pishko, Christman Bowers, Mariela Alburges, Linda Franks, Niaz Kasravi and the team at Red Cypress
Consulting for their feedback and support.

[ijJ

DEFUND SHERIFFS

SHERIFFS
FOR TRUSTING
COMMUNITIES
trustingsheriffs.org

FAITH~ )

ACTION
-

FUND

25

d

~u,-

•-■I!! COMMUNITY

•

••

RESOURCE HUE
FOR SAFETY & ACCOUNTABILITY

A TOOLKIT FOR ORGANIZERS

 

 

CLN Subscribe Now Ad 450x600
Advertise Here 2nd Ad
Prison Profiteers - Side