If the Sheriff's Office Falls, Who Should Pick Up the Pieces?


The Philadelphia Sheriff's office has always been an Island of Misfit Toys for political hacks for reasons we discussed in the previous blog post, but if City Council did decide to eliminate the Sheriff's office as an elected position, what should happen to its job functions?

The Philadelphia Sheriff is a functionary of the First Judicial District, led by President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, and the primary responsibility of the office is to implement court-ordered actions like eviction orders, and to support the activities of the courts, like maintaining courtroom security and transporting prisoners between jail and the courtroom. 
The Sheriff's office also administers Sheriff Sales, which is the local shorthand for foreclosed property auctions. This represents a smaller portion of the Sheriff's official duties, but an outsized portion of the stuff that's gotten Sheriffs into legal hot water over the years. Opportunities for corrupt dealings would be greatly reduced if these responsibilities were stripped from the Sheriff's job description and reassigned.

Who would be best-positioned to absorb these jobs? Given how little actual political content there is to the courtroom security operations, it's extremely weird that these live with an independently-elected office. The Sheriff and court-related employees could join the staff of the Department of Prisons, which lives within the Mayoral administration.
The transfer of the real estate unit from the Sheriff to another entity would have to be approved by the President Judge of the First Judicial District, and there are a few different places you could imagine it landing.

The ideal place (at least on paper) is at the Philadelphia Land Bank. The Land Bank was created to bring some order to the process for selling city-controlled properties, and the Land Bank's Strategic Plan calls for the Bank to get increasingly involved in acquiring properties that are headed for Sheriff Sale. Since its inception, the Land Bank has been working to acquire all the land controlled by four different city agencies, so moving foreclosed property auctions under the Bank's purview would truly make it a one-stop shop for acquiring city land. 

The Land Bank also has a very capable new director, Angel Rodriguez of Asociacion Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), and three new board members who favor a more streamlined land disposition process, so the timing is right. 

Political realities complicate the selection of a new home for Sheriff Sales, however. While it would be difficult for someone to mismanage this process worse than the status quo at the Sheriff's office, it's certainly possible City Council could try. Council inserted themselves into the Land Bank's land disposition process so that individual District members could continue to decide who gets to buy city-controlled land, so there would need to be some way to wall off foreclosed property auctions from Councilmanic prerogative. 

It's also possible to imagine the foreclosed property sales ending up at the Revenue Department, as Revenue already plays a role in tax foreclosures. Revenue is also considered a poorly-run Department though, so this also isn't exactly ideal. At some point, though, we have to try to fix these institutional problems instead of steering government functions to the least-bad departments, and the Land Bank is as good a place as any to start because of the benefits of having a full integrated system for property disposition. 

As the harassment scandal has refocused attention on the longstanding problems at the Sheriff's office, there is a political opportunity to eliminate the office and reassign its functions, as should've happened decades ago. It's important to start planning now for what should come next if reformers win.

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