A new sheriff in town? Yes, please!

A new ACLU poll shows just how little voters know about their sheriffs.

By Yvonne Abraham Globe Columnist,Updated April 13, 2022, 6:41 p.m.

“There’s a new sheriff in town.”

We don’t hear those words often enough these days.

And not just because most of us don’t live in the Wild West, but because, once elected, a sheriff is rarely turned from office by voters. That’s a serious problem, especially when the sheriff in question fancies himself the hero of some cowboy movie, as too many of them do.

In Massachusetts, sheriffs wield immense influence over a sizable chunk of the public safety system: Their 14 lockups house some 6,000 men and women awaiting trial or serving sentences of 2.5 years or less.

Sheriffs decide how those people live every day – as fully human or irredeemable outcasts deserving of maximum suffering. They determine how much care incarcerated people get for medical conditions, mental illness, and substance abuse disorders. They decide whether to offer real opportunities that would help inmates better succeed on the outside. Their policies on visits and phone calls can make or break vital and stabilizing connections between the people under their care and their loved ones.

It’s a mountain of power, concentrated in the hands of one person per county.

So who is watching these guys?

Hardly anybody, actually. Separate and apart from the state corrections system, they can be removed by a governor, but that is vanishingly rare nationally, according to Amber Walker, deputy director of Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, a national group focused on accountability.

“Sheriffs operate with negligible oversight despite controlling large budgets and managing jails that 11 million people pass through every year,” Walker said via e-mail.

This is possible because too few voters are paying attention to them, or even understand what they actually do.

A poll released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts tells the sorry tale. It found that fewer than 1 in 5 of the state’s voters can name their local sheriff. Four in 10 do not know that sheriffs are elected officials, and 9 in 10 do not know the length of their terms (It’s six years, which is an eternity). And just a third of voters think sheriffs have a major impact on the criminal justice system.

It all shows in the election results.

In 2016, the last year when all Massachusetts sheriffs were on the ballot, seven of the 14 had no opponent in the general election. More than 600,000 of the voters who came out to vote for national and state officials left the sheriff spot blank.

So the ACLU is launching a public education campaign to get voters thinking about their sheriffs, and what they want from them. Called “Know Your Sheriff,” it is modeled on the organization’s recent effort to highlight the power held by district attorneys. ACLU of Massachusetts head Carol Rose said that campaign boosted turnout in prosecutors’ races in several counties. She and her allies are hoping to make sheriffs similarly visible – and accountable.

If it works, it will spell trouble for sheriffs who have an undeserved lock on their offices. One can’t help but wonder, for example, whether Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson would still be in power after 24 years if more voters knew who he is and what he’s done.

It is of course possible – depressing, but possible – that a true majority of the people in Bristol County love a sheriff who has mistreated prisoners, leapt at the chance to imprison and brutalize those who have committed no crime beyond being undocumented, leveraged his tough-on-crime pose to build a national profile and become a kind of mascot in a uniform for former president Trump.

But how would we know for sure? Hodgson had no opponent in 2016, and more than 66,000 of those who came out to vote in that election, which made his hero president, blanked the sheriff himself.

This year might be different. Already, five people are considering a run against Hodgson, including Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, who has promised to reform the county’s jails and provide thoughtful and supportive policies to keep more inmates from returning to jail.

Hodgson will be able to turn his long career, large war chest, and the loyalty of his employees to his advantage come November. But there’s one thing he will no longer be able to leverage, if all goes well: Voters’ ignorance.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.