Aug. 23, 2018: Political Report

Daniel Nichanian

In this edition of the Political Report: 

  • Florida: Spotlight on the Flagler County sheriff

  • Florida: (Voters to decide the next state attorney in the 20th Judicial Circuit

  • Florida: Gubernatorial candidates lay out criminal justice platforms

  • Minnesota: Nobles County sheriff faces immigration lawsuit

  • New York and Illinois: Two reform bills meet different fates


Florida: Spotlight on the Flagler County sheriff and his boastful statements

Flagler County expanded its county jail in July 2016, more than tripling the number of people it could detain. Later that year, the county elected a new sheriff—Rick Staly—who has since boasted about the record number of individuals in the jail and about the poor conditions therein.

Staly has unveiled signs labeling the jail the “Green Roof Inn.” In a YouTube video he released, he stands next to a large neon sign meant to mimic a motel. “We have a one-star rating and we’re working to lower that as I’m speaking,” he says before running through a list of “accommodations” (“there is no privacy in this hotel,” and “you eat what we give you, or you don’t eat”). Staly told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that these theatrics were “a warning to potential offenders that the jail is not a 5-star hotel.” Staly has a history of broadcasting contempt for the people in his custody. “If you are still in need of sandbags, head to the Bunnell Fire Station and let the inmates do the labor for you,” he told Flagler County residents preparing for Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Staly has also released multiple statements celebrating his jail’s “record high inmate population” and claiming credit for the growth. “We continue to set new inmate records and when they are in our jail they are not preying on our community,” he said when the jail hit 256 detainees earlier this month—a number far higher than the jail’s pre-expansion capacity of 132. During Staly’s 2016 campaign, Flagler Live asked him about expanding the jail in a context where crime is not increasing. “Jail beds have a way of abhorring emptiness,” warned the interviewer. “What will you do to keep beds from getting filled just because they’re there?” Staly answered by effectively denying the sheriff’s responsibility in affecting the number of jail detentions; some of Staly’s opponents struck a different tune in answering the same question, stating a goal of keeping the jail’s population steady or citing their support for issuing more citations over arrests.

Staly is working to advance the nationwide effort to treat the sale of drugs that lead to an overdose as a homicide; The Appeal recently reported from Rhode Island on this trend’s dire effects on mass incarceration and public health. Upon becoming sheriff, Staly instructed his deputies to investigate all overdose deaths as murders. The state attorney later charged a man with murder over the death of a woman to whom he had sold fentanyl, a development that Staly celebrated. “I hope you rot in prison until you die,” he said at a press conference.

Staly, a Republican, is up for re-election in 2020 in this GOP-leaning county in Northeast Florida.


Florida: Voters to decide the next state attorney in the 20th Judicial Circuit

Numerous recent elections have featured competition over who is the strongest reformer. But that’s certainly not the dynamic in the race for state attorney in Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit, a jurisdiction that covers Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, and Lee counties. In the Aug. 28 GOP primary, former prosecutor Chris Crowley is running against the specter of people roaming the streets despite being arrested “25 or 26 times;” he promises to be tougher than the current state attorney. His opponent, Amira Fox, the assistant state attorney, responds with commitments of her own to prosecute harshly; she has the National Rifle Association’s endorsement. (This primary is very likely to decide the entire election; these are all conservative counties and no Democrat has filed for the position.)

Crowley has attacked the state attorney’s office—and Fox by extension—for having too low a “guilty disposition rate,” namely the share of cases that result in a guilty plea or a conviction. That rate is 82 percent according to state statistics, but Crowley puts it at 39 percent. Why the difference? As the News-Press explains, Crowley includes in his calculation—and effectively treats as failed cases from a prosecutorial standpoint—those arrests that did not produce guilty dispositions because defendants were diverted into alternative resolutions such as a drug court. (Fox defends the circuit’s existing diversion programs.)

This set up one of this campaign season’s great ironies in early August, when Crowley was arrested for violating campaign finance laws. The Naples News describes what happened next: “Crowley signed a pretrial diversion agreement…, which allows first-time offenders to have their charges dropped if they successfully complete the program.”

Crowley has also targeted Fox over her Palestinian heritage. He has done this with the help of Roger Stone, the notorious Republican operative who is advising him. Stone has said that he wishes to “expose” Fox as a “radical Muslim,” and Crowley has sent voters a mailer that claims that Fox has “close family ties to the PLO terrorist organization”; that characterization is based on the fact that Fox’s uncle was involved in the Palestine Liberation Organization through the 1980s, as Fox’s father recounted in his memoir “From Palestine to America.” Stone also helped Crowley secure an appearance on Alex Jones’s “Infowars.” Finally, the Naples News has reported that Crowley resigned and was dismissed from two prosecutorial jobs over the past decade after receiving negative job evaluations in both cases; Crowley attributes these setbacks to having antagonized his colleagues by criticizing them as excessively lenient.


Florida: Gubernatorial candidates lay out criminal justice platforms

Florida’s wide-open gubernatorial race will determine who wields the veto pen over the next four years and will shape the field of legislative possibilities. A coalition that aims to curb mass incarceration has gained some legislative traction, but one of the two Republican front-runners—Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam—has vowed to veto reform bills and to defend tough prison sentencing guidelines for all felony offenses.”

The five major Democratic candidates are singing a different tune. Andrew Pantazi recently reported on the gulf between Putnam and Democrats in a Florida Times-Union article that goes over their criminal justice platforms in detail. (The second Republican front-runner, Representative Ron DeSantis, “has been virtually silent on the issue,” writes Pantazi, a strategy that DeSantis has actually employed across the board.)

All Democrats want to loosen marijuana laws and scale back Florida’s “truth in sentencing” system; all also agree that judges need more discretion, that mandatory minimum laws need to be reformed, and private prisons should be eliminated,” Pantazi writes. But they diverge over the scope and specificity of their proposals. This is visible in Pantazi’s report as well as in their answers to a Miami Herald questionnaire. While I can’t do justice to all of their contrasts within this newsletter, here are some examples. (1) Some candidates present their aim as lowering the incarceration rate of nonviolent offenders specifically. This would only go so far in promoting decarceration given the composition of Florida’s prisons. Pantazi describes former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and businessman Chris King as “reluctant to extend reforms to violent crimes.” (2) Some of their proposals bank on change emanating from the discretion of prosecutors and judges rather than from new legislative restraints. For instance, Representative Gwen Graham wants prosecutors to go through an internal review process before charging young people as adults. (3) As for marijuana, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, King, and Levine all propose legalizing its recreational use; Graham and businessman Jeff Greene have talked of decriminalizing it.

The most immediate issue that the gubernatorial nominees will need to address is Amendment 4, which is on the November ballot: This initiative would enable people who complete a felony sentence to have their voting rights restored. It would affect more than one million currently disenfranchised Floridians. The Democratic candidates all unequivocally support Amendment 4, while the Republicans both oppose it. (In fact, in 2011 Putnam voted to add new restrictions to Florida’s already-harsh disenfranchisement rules.) It could matter just how vocal the eventual GOP nominee makes his opposition during the general election: Amendment 4 needs 60 percent to pass, a high threshold that requires that some GOP-leaning voters back it at the polls.


Minnesota: Nobles County sheriff faces immigration lawsuit

On Aug. 17, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a class-action lawsuit against Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening over his policy of honoring ICE’s requests that he hold individuals in his custody beyond their scheduled release. “Minnesota law requires Sheriff Wilkening to release people over whom he no longer has authority, yet he frequently holds immigrants in the Nobles County jail illegally for days, weeks, and even months,” the ACLU writes in a brief. According to the lawsuit, one plaintiff posted the $10,000 bond set by the court, but the sheriff’s office kept detaining her, and jail deputies simply refused to accept another plaintiff’s bond payment. The ACLU has sued Wilkening in the past and in 2017 successfully settled a case of unlawful detention.

Besides honoring ICE detainer requests, Nobles is also one of five Minnesota counties that rent out jail space to ICE for the agency to detain people it arrests in Minnesota and surrounding states. “Ten years ago, ICE wasn’t housing anyone with us at all,” Wilkening—who has served since 1999—noted in July. This is a financially lucrative arrangement for these counties, whose revenues rose in 2017 as the Trump administration increased the number of immigration detentions. “It’s a big business making profit off of detaining individuals who are not criminals,” an activist with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee told the Star Tribune.

If Nobles County illustrates the reach of local government, it also exemplifies how rarely sheriffs have to worry about their actions having electoral ramifications. Wilkening is up for re-election this year, but he is unopposed. He also faced no opponent whatsoever in 2006, 2010, and 2014.


New York and Illinois: Two reform bills meet different fates

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed sweeping legislation that creates the country’s only independent commission empowered to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. The bill passed on a bipartisan basis but it has been fiercely opposed by New York’s District Attorneys Association, which says that it will file a lawsuit against it. Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project in New York, explains in the New York Times that this reform responds to “the system’s egregious failure to hold a rogue prosecutor accountable.”

In Illinois, however, Governor Bruce Rauner blocked a bill that instructed public officials to inform people about how their interactions with the criminal justice system affects their voting rights. Sam Levine explains in HuffPost that “people detained in jails often have no idea they are eligible to vote, let alone how to request a ballot to do so. … Offenders, as well as parole officers and other corrections officials, can easily be confused about who has the right to vote.” Rauner specifically objected to the requirement that people released from incarceration be given voter registration forms.


Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!