BARNSTABLE — After 24 years, Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings is leaving office. So far, two candidates, Democrat Donna Buckley, a former general counsel in the sheriff’s office, and Republican State Rep. Tim Whelan, seek to replace him.
The sheriff’s job would bring Whelan, whose district includes Dennis and parts of Brewster, Yarmouth, and Barnstable, back into law enforcement. In a March 21 interview with the Independent, Whelan said he started working as a corrections officer in the maximum-security block of the Worcester County Jail at age 19, served as a U.S. Marine, and became a state police officer in 1993.
A state legislator since January 2015, he has served on the joint committees on Ways and Means and Public Service.
Whelan pointed to the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Bill (S.2371) — a bill that removed some mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and imposed others — as one of his proudest accomplishments in the legislature.
Whelan said legislative reform and increased support for inmates with mental health and substance abuse disorders are top priorities.
The main responsibility of the Barnstable County sheriff is to maintain “the safe and efficient running of the jail and house of correction in Bourne,” Whelan said. The Barnstable County Correctional Facility had 168 inmates as of March 21, according to Whelan.
Rehabilitation efforts should include vocational training to give inmates “marketable skills,” Whelan said. “To use the words of President Ronald Reagan,” he added, “the greatest public assistance program in the history of the world is a job.”
The next sheriff will oversee 340 staff members and a budget of roughly $33 million. Sheriffs’ departments in Massachusetts are funded in the state budget; they are not part of county government.
Whelan on ICE
Whelan said he would continue using the resources of the sheriff’s office to support the county’s 287(g) agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
A February 2022 petition filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights Behind Bars aims to invalidate that agreement on the grounds that it improperly uses state taxpayer money to fund federal immigration enforcement.
Whelan called the agreement, which allows the sheriff to empower officers to act as ICE agents, “no different” than warrants between U.S. states.
Whelan said the county’s 287(g) is “a proven tool that helps to keep the community safe.” He estimated six to eight people are turned over to ICE through this agreement every year.
Sheriff Cummings posts a monthly report on his website, enumerating “foreign born” Barnstable County Correctional Facility inmates his office states are “likely residing in the United States without authorization.” The site further states that the sheriff’s office “has provided information on these individuals to ICE for further action.” There have been 25 such people listed on the sheriff’s website over the past six months, but the site provides no indication as to how many are of interest to ICE.
Barnstable County is the only one in the state with a 287(g) agreement with ICE.
A Sheriff’s Office Counsel
As general counsel for the sheriff’s office, Donna Buckley was responsible for “providing guidance to the sheriff’s office on legislation, criminal justice and police reform, employment and labor relations,” according to her resume. Buckley served as counsel for four years before stepping down this month to run her campaign.
A lawyer for 37 years, Buckley “worked as an advocate for public employees through the collective bargaining process to the legislative process,” she said in a March 25 interview with the Independent.
Buckley pointed to the institution of a Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT) program in January as one of her proudest accomplishments as general counsel.
According to a 2015 article in the Barnstable Patriot, a treatment program using the opioid blocker Vivitrol launched at the jail in 2012 to treat addictive disorders “dramatically reduced recidivism.” The expanded MAT program allows for methadone and suboxone use, Buckley said. It’s a development she and Whelan agree on.
Like Whelan, Buckley views mental health and addiction treatment as top priorities and said she would promote public safety by “making sure that the people released had the best treatment, education programs, and mental health and addiction counseling we could give them.
“Municipal and state police are the people who are out patrolling, responding to calls, and addressing violations of the law,” Buckley said. “The sheriff’s responsibility is not to do law enforcement, it’s to treat the people in jail regardless of how they got there.
“It is not a law enforcement model that will make us safer,” Buckley added.
One aspect of the department’s model Buckley hopes to change is the 287(g). “It’s not an agreement that makes Barnstable County any safer,” Buckley said.
“Every person in the correctional facility is coming back to live next to each and every one of us,” she went on. “We have an obligation to our community to make sure that we do the best that we can and avoid cycles of harm.”
The last day to submit nomination papers to the registrars of voters for certification for county and district offices is May 3. Voters will head to the polls on Nov. 8 to decide on a new sheriff for Cape Cod.