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Sheriff Joe and the MCSO: What Happens Next?

Inflatable Joe. Photo credit: Frontera Fund
Inflatable Joe. Photo credit: Frontera Fund

The moment we’ve been waiting decades for has finally happened: Sheriff Joe Arpaio is both booted out of office and convicted of criminal contempt of court. But this ruling doesn’t mean a door has closed on a despicable era. The former Maricopa County Sheriff’s punishment has yet to be decided. And, like Trump, Arpaio is such a cruel, clownish caricature, it’s easy to forget that he’s a figurehead for a complicated system of prejudice that will take years to dismantle.

Let’s delve into what might happen next.

Will Arpaio be locked up?

At a press conference following the Arpaio verdict, members of Puente said Arpaio should be jailed for blatantly disobeying the court and continuing his unconstitutional racial profiling.

“I believe it’s time he gets a taste of his own medicine,” said Noemi Romero, whose future was robbed from her during one of Arpaio’s workplace raids.

Arpaio’s sentence will be delivered on October 5; he faces up to six months in jail. But his attorneys say he will appeal the verdict in an attempt to get a jury trial.

“Do we want him to go to jail? The answer is yes,” said Puente’s Francisca Porchas. “We want him to pay for what he’s done and to send a really strong message to the rest of the sheriffs across this country and law enforcement who daily terrorize our communities.”

But the community is not overly optimistic that the ex-sheriff will have to wear pink underwear and eat soy slop, as he has forced his inmates to do.

“What happens when people like Arpaio are found guilty is they get a slap on the wrist,” Romero said.

Porchas mentioned the case of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has yet to face jail time for obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and giving false statements to federal investigators – all in connection with severe jail system abuses. Part of the reason is that Baca is 75 and suffers from dementia. Arpaio is 85, and many legal experts feel it’s unlikely a man of his age will be incarcerated.

“Do we feel like a sheriff who has had 30 years of racist, torturous, cruel history in this county is going to get what he deserves? No,” Porchas said. “Do we know that we’re dealing with a system that’s racist, that ends up incarcerating and being more punitive to poor people and people of color and women? Yes.”

However, we have been pleasantly surprised before – both when Arpaio was voted out of office, and when he was convicted of criminal contempt of court.

Whatever happens, for Puente and many others in the community, jail time for Arpaio is only one slice of the justice pie. “For us, justice will not be served only in the courts or only with [Arpaio] going to jail,” said Puente organizer Maria Castro. “Justice for us means that Sheriff Penzone will do his due diligence and proceed to dismantle the hateful practices and the racist practices that have been implemented for the past 24 years.”

MCSO Sheriff Paul Penzone

MCSO Sheriff Paul Penzone

How will the ruling affect current MCSO Sheriff Paul Penzone’s practices?

Penzone’s comments following the Arpaio ruling have been cautious. He told KTAR radio, “This outcome speaks to my predecessor and his legacy. But as far as it having an impact on closure or any element of what we’re doing or who we are, that train left the station a long time ago for us. We moved forward from this a long time ago.”

In April, Penzone announced the closing of the infamous Tent City jail, where inmates suffered day and night in sweltering Arizona temperatures. The shuttering of that facility, which even Penzone hinted was more of a publicity circus for Arpaio than a crime deterrent, saves the county $4.5 million per year.

So Penzone has made progress, but he needs to do more, Porchas says. “We want Sheriff Penzone to end Arpaio’s legacy and to kick out ICE officers from the Fourth Avenue jail where they’ve been for a very long time.”

That may prove more difficult than closing Tent City. In late July, the Trump administration announced it was clamping down on so-called sanctuary cities. According to the new rules, states and cities will only be able to apply for the federal government’s largest grant for local law enforcement if they allow ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers into jails. The jails must also inform ICE at least 48 hours before they release anyone whom ICE is investigating.

Meanwhile, activists are continuing to build on their successes and increase the momentum in the fight for immigrant rights.

One thing is for sure: Sheriff Joe may be gone, but his unconstitutional activities will continue to cost taxpayers. By next summer, the total for his racial profiling case is expected to reach $92 million.

Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund will keep you updated on this evolving issue.