We The People, more on the election
Candidates running for Hall County sheriff have differing views on the effects of Georgia’s criminal justice reform act and accreditation for the agency they seek to lead.
The five candidates for sheriff, all Republicans, made their stances on the issues known at a forum sponsored by the Hall County Republican Party, taking questions for more than an hour Saturday morning.
The primary election is July 31. Early voting begins July 9.
The forum at the Georgia Mountains Center theater drew an audience so large that some were forced to sit in aisles and stand in the hallways.
And several times during the 90-minute forum, audience members would shout out at the candidates.
At one point in the forum, as Gerald Couch made his final address to the crowd and mentioned a desire to address physical fitness in the department, a man near the front of the crowd yelled, “In other words, you don’t like fat people.”
One of the lengthiest discussions of the forum focused on the state’s new criminal justice reform law.
The sweeping law, which takes effect today, aims to keep nonviolent offenders out of the state’s prison beds by changing sentencing requirements for theft and burglaries and pushing rehabilitation for repeat drug offenders.
But John Sisk, who like Couch served in both the sheriff’s office and Gainesville Police Department, said he believed the law would result in more criminals in Hall County and place more of a burden on deputies.
“I know it’s a burden on the state to keep people in prison, but what that does, it dumps them back into Hall County,” Sisk said. “That means we’re going to have more criminals on the streets, we’re going to have a harder time enforcing the laws; we’re going to have a harder time protecting the citizens of Hall County because there is going to be more people out there because they’re not in prison.”
Chuck Hewett, the former chief of security at the jail, also sounded skeptical.
“As far as the prisons (are) concerned, I’m a very cut and dried person on this: If you break the law you need to go to jail,” he said.
Hewett said while he understood the cost-saving efforts of the reforms, he worried that changes in the law for burglary sentences, dividing the charge into two degrees, would water down punishments for what he said was an offense that may not be considered “violent” but still made victims feel “violated.”
“It becomes a society that gets lackluster in its prosecution of crimes, and that bothers me,” Hewett said.
Former chief deputy Jeff Strickland, too, said the concern should be on whether the lowered punishment for nonviolent crimes would have an impact on the Hall County Jail’s population and costs for county taxpayers.
But Sisk, Strickland and Couch all believe accountability courts for drug offenders and criminals with mental health issues are a positive step.
“Instead of being a tax burden, they’re back to being at the taxpayer status,” Couch said.
The changes to degrees of burglaries, Couch said, doesn’t weaken punishments.
Likewise, Jon P. Strickland, a former Gainesville police officer and Georgia State patrolman, said the law seeks to deal with the source of problems, like drug addiction.
“I think the main thing to keep in mind with this new law is does punishment fit the crime? And I think that’s what they’re looking at,” Jon P. Strickland said.
The candidates were also split Saturday on whether the sheriff’s office should continue to seek national accreditation for the sheriff’s office. Currently, the department has the mark of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. While Couch said he thought that meeting the requirements for state certification were worth the money, costing the county about $300 per year, he did not feel the same about national accreditation from CALEA, which has more standards and costs significantly more.
“Looking at the cost of those things, the state certification is well worth it. I don’t know what the national accreditation gets us above and beyond state certification,” said Couch. “I’ve yet to hear a clear answer on that. I know we get reduced insurance rates and premiums with the certifications, but I don’t know what the accreditation gives us extra.”
“I wouldn’t do that any longer because we don’t get any benefit for the cost,” Hewett said. “We’re spending over $100,000 in salaries just gathering information and getting it together and what we’re doing is waiting until three or four weeks before (the evaluators come) and it’s not managed well.”
Along with concerns on cost, Hewett said he felt it was the sheriff’s responsibility to make sure the residents of the county were taken care of, not a national organization like CALEA. Jon P. Strickland agreed that there needed to be standards, but he said he couldn’t decide whether CALEA accreditation was necessary until he was elected and talked to supervisors and current staff in the sheriff’s office.
“The main thing I think we need to look at, the policies and procedures in place, are they being followed? When you look at some of that, you’re not really sure,” he said. “But I think when you’re sitting on the outside as a candidate, I think it’s not fair to say exactly what you’re going to do to it until you’re sitting in the chair of the sheriff.”
Sisk, on the other hand, said the up-front expense of accreditation would save taxpayers the expense of “frivolous lawsuits.” He said the money would also save the county money on liability insurance.
“I don’t believe you can work in law enforcement and not have a standard to go by,” Sisk said.
Jeff Strickland also expressed undoubted support for continuing the accreditation process. He said he was a “driving force” in the last accreditation process, and that the CALEA nod ensured that the office lived up to nationally recognized best practices.
“I think it’s as simple as this,” Jeff Strickland said. “Would you send your child to a non-accredited college? Would you want to have heart surgery at a hospital that’s not accredited?”
The candidates also expressed their support for the 287(g) partnership the county agency has with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement but had differing views on how to improve it.
As a result of the program, Jeff Strickland said county officials have seen reductions in drugs and documented gang members in Hall.
“I think it’s one of our best weapons to fight and to maintain the quality of life of Hall County,” he said.
“Of course, I would not change that program, I will operate it as the federal government allows and it will not be watered down, if I’m your sheriff.”
Couch said he, too, felt like the program had been successful “as it was originally designed.” But he expressed concerns about the future of the program, saying that it faces a $17 million cut in the federal budget.
“Will that affect us on the local level — a $17 million cut? Yes it will,” Couch said.
Hewett said he already felt the unit needed more resources. He said he was the initial supervisor of the unit.
“What I would do, if I did anything at all, would be to increase the unit, because right now we’ve got four or five officers working in the unit where they’re having to work 12-hour shifts. If you’ve got one on vacation, you’ve got a unit that’s short of people,” Hewett said.
He said the sheriff’s office did not keep task force officers in the program adequately trained and lost that aspect of the program.
Task force officers for 287(g) would be allowed to arrest individuals solely on their immigration status; most of the program involves checking the immigration status of all arrestees and reporting illegal immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Their role, Hewett said, would have been much like what House Bill 87 sought to do: Allow police officers to question residents about their immigration status and require proof of legal residency.
He said the county lost an opportunity to expand the program.
“We just didn’t follow up and keep those officers trained,” Hewett said. “That would be my goal there is to make sure our training would be up to date.”
Sisk, who said he supports the current practice of checking immigration status of jail inmates, didn’t agree that the county should employ the task force officers.
He said the county does not now have the resources to do the job correctly.
“I think we’re getting into some muddy waters when you’ve got officers out on the streets trying to determine immigration status when we don’t have the information,” Sisk said.
Jon P. Strickland said the program works, adding “we just have to enforce the criminal element of it.”
“I feel like we’re talking this to death,” he said. “As a sheriff, you can’t change what’s happening at the border right now. As a sheriff, you have to be vigilant in determining what happens in your county. I think you as taxpayers want your sheriff to use his resources to the best of his ability so he doesn’t break your bank.”