While debate over local criminal justice continues, voters won’t have much say on top law enforcement jobs this fall

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By Andrew Jenner

Last Tuesday’s primary election day was also deadline day: the last opportunity for candidates to file paperwork to run for local constitutional offices — such as sheriff and commonwealths’ attorney — that will appear on this November’s ballot. Aside from the incumbents, however, no one else did, meaning Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst and Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, both Republicans, will be unopposed in their reelection campaigns once again and are all but assured of serving again until 2023.

It continues a trend for the top law enforcement officials, as both Garst and Hutcheson have been left alone on the ballot since each was first elected in 1999 and 2011, respectively.

And this comes as public involvement in local criminal justice policy has grown in recent years, with calls for reform leading to developments such as the city and county agreeing to jointly fund a new criminal justice planner position beginning next month. At the same time, many note that the prosecutor and sheriff occupy two of the most powerful position within the local criminal justice system.

“All these folks who want to make a change in our justice system, that’s what they should be focusing on — finding someone to run,” said Aaron Cook, a defense attorney who began his career as a colleague of Garst’s when they both were assistant prosecutors in the ‘90s.

Garst, the lead prosecutor for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, has not had an opponent in 20 years as she prepares for a sixth four-year term.

“I try to treat all people who come into contact with my office fairly,” Garst said in email to The Citizen. “I hope my lack of a challenger reflects that fairness and dedication to victims. I treat every day in office as if I am still campaigning so that I still listen to the community and seek ways to improve the services of my office.”

Hutcheson, who leads the county sheriff’s office and oversees the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail, is running unopposed for the second consecutive election cycle. In 2011, he won both a Republican primary and three-way race in the general election to become sheriff.

He said in an email that he considers his job performance to be his most effective method of campaigning.

“I know I can do the job and have demonstrated my ability to do it at the highest level with professionalism,” Hutcheson said.

Cause and effect

Harvey Yoder, a pastor and counselor who is active in the local criminal justice reform movement, said that lack of candidates to challenge either the sheriff or commonwealth’s attorney has been a much-discussed topic, in part because it’s a missed opportunity to continue discussing different approaches and giving voters a say.

“I especially regret the lack of public debate on public issues that results from having only one person running for office,” he said, in an email.

As for possible factors that eliminate candidates, at the top of the list is the specialty of the jobs.

Cook, the defense attorney, pointed out that the requirement that a commonwealth’s attorney be a member of the state bar. That significantly reduces the number of potential challengers to that position.

In addition, he said, becoming commonwealth’s attorney would likely mean a pay cut for many attorneys who are eligible to run and requires additional evening and weekend work.

Cook said he’s been asked to consider challenging Garst. In addition to those other factors, he said he’s found his calling as a defense attorney and can’t see himself working again as a prosecutor.

Leading up to this year’s deadline, local Democrats tried recruiting candidates to run against the Republican incumbents for commonwealth’s attorney and sheriff, but none stepped forward.

“We had multiple conversations with potential candidates for both those positions,” said Thea Litchfield Campbell, chair of the Rockingham County Democratic Committee, in an email. “There were individuals who expressed serious interest, and who we felt would be serious contenders, but both decided not to run this year. While we would have loved to supported candidates in these positions, we understand the commitment of running is huge, and the professional toll it can take is hefty.”

Campbell also said because the posts require specific expertise, it limits the pool of people to ask and “it’s a big ask for someone who is established in their career to run for an elected position.”

Still, Campbell said Democratic Party leaders want to keep looking in preparation for future elections.

“All citizens benefit when elections are contested. Having a choice in who represents us is crucial to our democracy and to holding our elected officials accountable to their constituents,” Campbell added.

And like the county Democrats, Harrisonburg Democratic Committee Chair Alleyn Harned said the party sought challengers this year, but came up short. And party leaders have already begun trying to recruit candidates for the 2023 race.

Looking ahead

Garst said she is “very honored to continue to serve the City of Harrisonburg and County of Rockingham where I was born and raised.”

Looking ahead to a next term in office, Garst said she will focus on “the continued dedication to victims and to assure innovative answers from my office to try to break the recidivist cycle of incarceration.”

She said she also hopes to expand the local drug court and pursue new programs to better address substance use disorder in the community and provide more transitional housing for people leaving incarceration.

Hutcheson also said he considers it “an honor and a privilege to serve to the very best of my abilities every day” as sheriff.

“I have been in law enforcement for 25 years now and I have peers that are starting to retire, which may be good for them, but I have no such desires myself,” he said. “I love it!”

He also told The Citizen he looks forward to seeing through a major renovation of the jail – with work expected to continue about another year. And he said he will  continue leading his office’s adaptation to rapid growth along Port Republic Road just east of the city limits.

Part of that effort, he said, is working to “establish a good relationship with the students and break down the ‘us versus them’ mindset” in the new college housing developments that have recently been built in the area.


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