Fault Lines

American Sheriff

Fault Lines investigates the power of US sheriffs and allegations of prisoner neglect and abuse.

In large parts of the United States, sheriffs are the only form of law enforcement and do everything from running the jails to patrolling the streets.

Sheriffs and their deputies account for one-quarter of all sworn law enforcement officers in the US.

Sheriffs hold an incredible amount of power and are allowed to run the jails in the ways that they see fit. We see a lot of abuses ... I have never seen clear evidence that a sheriff faced serious electoral repercussions for the treatment of inmates in their jails.

by Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project

But unlike police or the FBI, who have clear oversight and a chain of command holding them accountable, sheriffs are elected in often highly partisan elections.

Many sheriffs don’t have term limits, and once they are elected, there are very few checks on their power. They can only be removed when the public votes against them.

“They have this huge amount of autonomy, huge amount of independence, huge amount of authority. They make decisions that really dramatically affect people’s lives, including life and death questions. That always breeds problems when you have a lot of authority and not a lot of accountability,” says Mirya Holman, professor of political science at Tulane University.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is the longest-serving sheriff in Massachusetts and is known for his tough-on-crime approach. But in recent years he has made news for the high suicide rate in his jails.

“Jail should never be a country club. And anyone who has spent time at our facilities will tell you that they are the furthest thing from a country club. And we know our approach is working,” says Hodgson.

Fault Lines travelled to two very different places, Bristol County, Massachusetts and New Iberia Louisiana, to investigate what can happen when the power of a sheriff goes unchecked.