What Does the County Sheriff Do?

The big primary race this year in Hampden County was for County Sheriff. A long-time Sheriff was retiring, opening up the seat for a newcomer. Lawn signs sprouted up all along my commute route, based upon which I predicted that Nick Cocchi would win (I was right). It seemed like a lot of people cared about who’s elected County Sheriff, which led me to two embarrassing questions: 

  1. What does the County Sheriff do?
  2. What does the county do?

Embarrassing questions, because I consider myself a guy who cares a lot about how government works (and, also, I recently wrote a blog post about why local politics are so important and why we should pay attention to them…). So since I didn’t know, I’m guessing at least a few others don’t either. Here’s what I found out.

What the Sheriff Does

First things first, a quick dive into what the County Sheriff does.

county-courthouse
Historic Hampden County Courthouse, with the newer, uglier Hampden County Courthouse inset in the bottom left. Sources: Mass.gov and Wikipedia

Looking through various “About Us” pages for County Sheriff Departments across the state, I can see that they are basically in charge of the County Jail – serving summonses, transporting pre-trial defendants, managing inmate populations, etc.

Here is what MassLive says about the Sheriff’s office:

The sheriff is responsible for overseeing the main men’s jail in Ludlow; a women’s jail in Chicopee; an addiction center currently located in Holyoke, but soon to be relocated to Mill Street in Springfield; an after-incarceration program serving 3,000 former inmates annually; and a day reporting center which monitors 50 to 70 people on GPS bracelets per day who are on probation or parole.

The sheriff also oversees a “serving office” with about 15 deputies serving legal papers on behalf of attorneys and other parties.

 

Other interesting facts for Hampden County Sheriff:

  • Salary: $151,709
  • Term: Six Years
  • Annual Budget: $75 million
  • Staff: 850
  • Inmates: 1,400 – 1,500

So the Sheriff oversees the county jail. Sure that’s important, but a pretty narrow realm of responsibility. Given the limited scope of what the Sheriff does, why do people seem to care so much?

I get the impression that it mostly stems from the opioid crisis sweeping over western Massachusetts; a lot of soundbites focused on how the candidates would address that. But it’s also the only countywide elected office (so far as I can tell), and so I wonder if it draws attention on that basis alone. If you have any other reasons, please post them below!

What Counties Do

This leads me to the next question: If the County Sheriff is our only county official, then why do we have counties? What do they do, anyway?

 

massachusetts-county-map
A Map of Massachusetts Counties. Source: geology.com (with annotations added by author)

 

The National Association of Counties has a brief history of counties. Basically, the idea is that back before the railroad made traveling great distances quick and easy, national, provincial, or colonial governments couldn’t effectively govern the full expanse of their territory. So they divided the territory into smaller chunks, and called them counties. 

In Massachusetts, counties are mostly vestigial. In other states there is a lot of rural land administered by counties; in Massachusetts, there is no unincorporated land (that is, land outside of a city or town boundary). This means all governing functions are taken care of by either the state or the municipality.* Thus, almost all counties have lost governing authority, with the County Sheriff being the only remaining elected official.

Why we have County Sheriffs reminds me of the kid who asked her mother about birthday candles.

“Mom, why do we have birthday candles?”

“Well, if we didn’t, what would we put on top of the birthday cake?”

Counties are tradition. And traditions die hard.

 

*As a side note, counties can also act as a way to incorporate a regional perspective into decision making processes. This is one area where Massachusetts lags, with all decisions taken at either the local or state level, and very little in between. One outcome of this hyper-localism is that zoning decisions are made locally, while transportation decisions are mostly statewide or regional. This means that transportation facilities are often trying to catch up with new large commercial developments, rather than being coordinated from the get-go through regional land use planning.

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