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Sheriff contenders vow an end to solitary confinement

Three Democratic contenders faced off in April 6 campaign forum

You probably can file this in the “campaign promises easier to make than to keep” folder.

The three Democratic aspirants for Arlington sheriff told an April 6 forum that, if elected, they would move to eliminate solitary confinement in the Arlington County Detention Facility.

“It is an abhorrent practice we should never have been doing in the first place,” said James Herring, who along with Wanda Younger is challenging Sheriff Jose Quiroz in the June 20 primary.

The winner moves on to almost guaranteed election in November.

The three squared off during an hour-long gathering sponsored by Offender Aid & Restoration (OAR), held at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.

Asked about solitary confinement, Younger, who spent three decades working in the sheriff’s office prior to her retirement, said she “would not use it,” while Quiroz, who was appointed sheriff by the Circuit Court in the wake of January’s retirement of incumbent Beth Arthur, said he was working to phase it out.

“We are definitely going to remove that. It needs to go,” Quiroz said.

Virginia’s jails and prisons long have used solitary confinement – sometimes up to 23 hours a day – as a way to punish those who consistently break rules or are deemed a threat to others. State legislators in recent years have tapped the brakes, putting limits on its use, but the Arlington sheriff contenders say they will go much further.

It was a position that resonated with the left-leaning OAR audience, but may be challenging to implement under real-world conditions.

Then again, many of the proposals advocated by all three contenders may have challenges in implementation, especially from a budget standpoint.

The winner of the June 20 primary is likely to move into the general election without opposition. To date, Republicans have been unable to field candidates for any Arlington office, and no independents have announced plans to run. The filing deadline is late June.

Herring, the lone Democratic contender not to have worked in the Sheriff’s Office, does have a law-enforcement background; he currently is on the staff of the Arlington County Police Department. He said difficulties in recruiting and retaining public-safety personnel are plaguing every agency, including in Arlington.

“Law enforcement is in crisis,” he said. “Standards are falling short everywhere.”

While Herring did not directly take on the leadership of Quiroz (or Arthur, who has endorsed him), Younger did. She criticized promotions and personnel actions in the office, and said that rather than being punitive when incarcerees break rules, the office should “focus on the root causes of why people act certain ways.”

For his part, Quiroz – who 45 minutes into the debate seemed a bit rattled by the experience – said he was implementing change with a goal to “treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

Arthur had served as sheriff for more than two decades, becoming the first female sheriff in the more than 400 years of the position in Virginia.

Unlike more rural areas of the commonwealth, where sheriff’s offices are the primary law-enforcement agencies, Arlington’s police department handles most of those tasks at the local level. The sheriff’s office focuses on running the jail, providing courtroom security and serving court-related paperwork on parties.