Originally posted at CA Fwd.
By Christopher Nelson.

Last week we broke down the difference between probation and parole in our “Back to the Basics” series on public safety realignment. This week, we tackle two more topics intertwined with our inaugural one: the differences between prisons and jails and between Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

To begin with, jails are run by counties while prisons are run by the state (or the federal government). Roughly 70 percent of jail populations are those awaiting trial, making them more of a detention center in many ways. Most of the other 30 percent are convicted offenders serving sentences that average less than a year long. In other words, as a general statement, prior to AB 109 there were no Hannibal Lecters in county jails.

Historically, those convicted of more serious crimes found their way to a state prison.  This reality is changing with AB 109 as county jails are now seeing more offenders with sentences as long as 10 years or more who previously would have been in state prisons.  Jails are simply not built for some of what is being expected of them in terms of infrastructure, rehabilitative programs, services and appropriately trained staff. This is what has caused much of the headache for counties in the first two years of AB 109 as they attempt to adapt to their new role in our criminal justice system in CA.

These are the basics on jails vs. prisons. To dive deeper on the matter, we consulted Tom Hoffman, former head of Department of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) for California and a long time southern California police executive:

The Sheriff has an obligation to operate and supervise the County jail. Often he/she is also Coroner. The Sheriff also frequently provides public safety services to the unincorporated and contract communities in the county.  A COP is in charge of local, city-managed and funded police department. 

The fundamental differences between a Police Chief and the Sheriff is driven mostly by the fact one is an elected politician and the other is an appointed, “at will” employee, most often serving at the pleasure of the City Manager. A few CA Chiefs of Police (COPs) are appointed by the Mayor, however most are appointed by the City Manager who also serves at the pleasure of the City Council. 

This creates a reality wherein COP’s are motivated to develop policy and present themselves in a politically “neutral” fashion. As an “at will” employee who is appointed by an “at will” employee, police chiefs are aware politics and position tenure are not mutually inclusive realities. Sheriffs, as a consequence of being elected, can only be removed by a recall election, something that very rarely occurs.  This reality provides them with political latitude and organizational freedom not experienced by most police chiefs.

As an elected official the Sheriff can exercise more personal latitude in the day to day management of the department’s budget and policy when compared to that of an appointed Chief. COPs are accountable to the City Manager for the effective management of a pre-approved budget and the leadership of the police department in a way that supports the community philosophy around public safety as determined by the city council.  COPs are MUCH more restrained in their level of personal discretion and organizational latitude than an elected County Sheriff.  

So bottom line, Sheriffs can be, and generally are, more politically motivated and inclined to seek out opportunities to publicly debate criminal justice issues and local policies. Chiefs, on the other hand, are expected to be politically “aware” but not politically “active”.  

There can also be differences in the background and professional experience of candidates for Sheriff and Police Chief.  Chiefs are selected as a consequence of a locally controlled and very structured process overseen by the City Manager and approved by the City Council.  An open election for Sheriff is not similarly structured, by design. 

A candidate for COP must have a publicly verifiable record of extensive experience and education simply to apply for the position. When compared to Police Chiefs, Sheriffs can come from very different professional experience and backgrounds. An open election process enables, as an example, a police officer to be a candidate for Sheriff in a southern California County. It is also why candidates with much less public safety executive management experience than most COPs in our state have become Sheriff. This is not suggesting this reality, in and of itself, is a bad thing; it is simply a difference that being “elected” as compared to “appointed” enables. 

The “independence” of the top person enables Sheriffs to adopt policy, practice and procedure more independently than that of a locally appointed COP. Suffice to say being “elected” and “appointed” makes a world of difference in any number of organizational and procedural practices inside the organization.