• Description

In the United States, more than 3,000 sheriffs possess unchecked authority over arrests, incarceration, and civil enforcement. Common Cause and Sheriffs for Trusting Communities sought financial and related data from 105 sheriffs to investigate conflicts of interest and ethics issues. For this report, we define a conflict of interest when a public official (e.g., a sheriff) is in a position to receive a personal benefit (e.g., a campaign contribution) from actions or decisions made in their official capacity (e.g., awarding contracts). More specifically, we define conflicts of interest as contributions to sheriff candidates from incarceration-specific businesses, as well as other businesses and individuals that may stand to benefit by doing business with a sheriff's office (including construction, food services, and weapons manufacturers). Unfortunately, many conflicts of interest are not prohibited by government ethics laws.

In the criminal legal system, the patterns are clear and striking. Business interests can establish a relationship with sheriffs by sending even small contributions. Construction companies provide backing to sheriffs who proceed to build new jails. Health care companies fund campaigns, and then receive multimillion-dollar contracts, with no criteria for results or the health of incarcerated people. The list of donors with direct conflicts is striking and includes employed deputies, bail bonds companies, weapons dealers, and gun ranges. It is a system incentivized to jail more people and cast a blind eye to any harm suffered by those within the jails.

Our research, conducted in 11 states, in less than 3 percent of sheriffs offices, documents approximately 13,000 apparent conflicts of interest, primarily between 2010 and 2021. We have identified upward of $6 million, approximately 40% of all examined contributions, that create potential conflicts of interest. We have selected these sheriffs using a combination of public interest, and random selection, so these sheriffs are more likely to represent a pattern than exceptional cases. Because the line between legal and illegal conflicts of interest varies between jurisdictions, and because many jurisdictions' conflict of interest laws are woefully inadequate, we did not attempt to determine the legality of specific contributions and contracts. Occupational and employer data from campaign contributions were aggregated and categorized.