“The Paid Jailer” Report Examines How Political Contributions to Sheriffs Create Conflicts of Interest and Fuel Mass Incarceration

In the United States, more than 3,000 sheriffs possess extensive or even total authority over arrests, incarceration, and civil enforcement in their jurisdictions. A new report released today by Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability examines how campaign contributions to sheriffs across the country and their business relationships with donors can encourage and incentivize mass incarceration in the U.S. “The Paid Jailer: How Sheriff Campaign Dollars Shape Mass Incarceration,” is a first of its kind report that examines the conflicts of interest and ethics issues raised by the political giving of corporations and individuals seeking contracts and business with these law enforcement agencies.

“Sheriffs’ deputies make more than 2 million arrests each year, and sheriffs’ control most of the country’s jails, where hundreds of thousands of people are confined at any given time,” said Max Rose, executive director of Sheriffs for Trusting Communities. “This report shows that, instead of making decisions for community safety, many sheriffs are rewarding their donors with new jails and jail contracts. This conflict of interest leads to people dying in jail and an incentive to put more people behind bars, and it can’t continue”

The financial and related data in the report was collected from a representative cross-section of 48 sheriffs across the United States. The research, conducted in 11 states, documents approximately 13,000 apparent conflicts of interest, primarily between 2010 and 2021. The findings identified upward of $6 million, approximately 40% of all examined contributions, that create potential conflicts of interest.

Findings in the report include:

  • Maryland sheriffs received up to $1,396,569 in ethically conflicted donations across 24 campaigns.
  • The Orange County (CA) Sheriff accounts for $715,000 in potential conflicts of interest.
  • Massachusetts sheriffs received up to $2,686,129 in potentially conflicted donations across just 13 sheriffs’ campaigns, with sheriffs in these five counties being the top recipients: Suffolk County, $319,002; Bristol County, $324,870; Hampden County, $396,604; Worcester County, $504,516; and Plymouth County, $738,008.

“This report demonstrates that county sheriffs are politicians with a badge. The research revealed that many sheriffs took in significant contributions not just from one or two conflicted sources, but from a wide range of contributors who stood to benefit from their dealings with these departments,” said Keshia Morris Desir, Common Cause census & mass incarceration project manager. “The incentives are skewed and only serve to exacerbate the already huge problem of mass incarceration in the United States.”

The report’s breakdown by industry of campaign contributions to current incumbent sheriffs in 48 counties found the following:

  • Construction companies and real estate businesses gave sheriffs’ campaigns at least $1,620,611 across 1,010 separate transactions. These companies benefit by receiving lucrative contracts for the design and construction of jails and other law enforcement facilities.
  • Representatives of legal firms and related services gave $326,878 across 1,099 separate donations. Many of these contributors represent the sheriffs’ offices on wrongful death and misconduct cases.
  • Transportation companies donated $286,826, including towing and hauling businesses, across 599 transactions. Sheriffs’ offices spend millions to purchase, modify, and repair government vehicles, including cars, boats, and aircraft. Sheriffs also rely on towing companies for impounding vehicles. Moving companies benefit when the sheriff calls them when evicting someone from their residence.
  • Telecom and Tech companies donated $216,847 to these sheriffs. Many sheriffs’ offices are high-tech enterprises, dishing out millions of dollars in contracts to companies that handle services such as phone calls with incarcerated people, surveillance, and weapons systems. Sheriffs’ offices often draw commissions from services they provide to incarcerated people, including up to 85% site commissions on every phone call.
  • Medical businesses and professionals donated more than $290,000 in at least 640 contributions to the analyzed campaigns. At least $55,465 came from providers who also held contracts with these same sheriffs.
  • Businesses in the energy industry have been known to use sheriffs as their own private security forces. Our research found that at least $70,679 was donated to sheriffs from segments of the energy sector.

“The cost to run for sheriff varies drastically from one jurisdiction to the next, from a few thousand to millions of dollars, but those who stand to gain through campaign contributions scale them accordingly,” said Beth Rotman, Common Cause Money in Politics & Ethics Program Director. “Where there is money to be made from elected officials, campaign contributions will flow and that is precisely why we need strong ethics, campaign finance, and disclosure laws on the books.”

The report closes with a series of policy recommendations to curb conflicts of interest and ethics issues raised by the political giving of corporations and individuals seeking contracts with sheriff’s departments

  • End contributions from entities doing or seeking business with the sheriffs’ office. The report calls for breaking the connection between those seeking government contracts and those entities awarding them. It points to states and municipalities that have helped limit the quid pro quo relationship between special interests and the governments awarding contracts.
  • Amplify the voices of more everyday Americans in sheriff’s election by changing how we pay for political campaigns. The recommendations call for citizen-funded elections to amplify the voices of everyday Americans over wealthy special interests by boosting the role of small-dollar donors through any of a number of programs including matching funds programs, voucher programs, or raising qualifying contributions to receive a lump-sum grant.
  • Strengthen transparency and disclosure laws. The report emphasizes the need to strengthen transparency and disclosure laws so that everyone is aware of who is funding campaigns. Undisclosed contributions or political spending allows special interests and donors to buy influence anonymously.

The report was co-authored by Dr. Jonathan Henry, Keshia Morris Desir, Max Rose, Beth Rotman, and Paul S. Ryan, and published by Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability. The report has been endorsed by more than 20 nonprofit organizations.

To read the report “The Paid Jailer: How Sheriff Campaign Dollars Shape Mass Incarceration,” click here.

To see the data, click here.