The race for Sacramento sheriff became more competitive Monday when former deputy chief and noted criminal justice reform advocate Milo Fitch announced he was running against incumbent Scott Jones.
Fitch confirmed to The Bee that he obtained necessary papers from the county Monday morning to place himself on the ballot.
"The reason I am running is because we need a change," Fitch said Monday afternoon. "There are too many big problems that are not being addressed and I look forward to making my case to voters that I am the right person to solve them."
Fitch declined to comment further on his platform or positions, but said he would offer more details later in the week.
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Fitch is a retired chief deputy with the Sacramento Sheriff's Department and currently heads workforce development for the California Prison Industry Authority, the state agency that provides work opportunities and job training for inmates to decrease recidivism.
Fitch spent more than 30 years with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, working in gangs, narcotics and other assignments. Before retiring, he ran the Rio Consumnes Correctional Facility near Elk Grove, where he helped to start inmate rehabilitation programs including a wild mustang training program that helps prisoners learn farrier skills.
Fitch has a low profile outside of law enforcement communities and has never run for office. But those who know him said he is widely respected in criminal justice circles and is less conservative than Jones on some key issues.
"It would literally be good for Sacramento County if (Fitch) was the sheriff, no ifs ands or buts," said Matt Powers, a former deputy chief with the Sacramento Police Department and former CEO of the Prison Industry Authority. Powers knows Fitch only by reputation, but said he is known as an expert in the state's reduction in prison populations following AB 109, the 2011 "realignment" measure that switched many low-level inmates from state to county facilities and put a renewed focus on rehabilitation.
"He understands you have to enforce the law. There are people who unequivocally have to be prosecuted and if convicted, successfully locked up," said Powers. "But the world has changed. Sheriff's departments have picked up a large load that historically was (the state prison systems). ... These are folks who are going to do three, four, five years in county jail, and it's the responsibility of the sheriff in this community to prepare them for successful release. I don't really know what Scott Jones' office is doing about that, but I do know that Milo understands it."
Fitch was also described by those who know him as more moderate on gun control than Jones, who recently got into a public spat with the state auditor over his handling of a report examining concealed weapons permits in his department and across the state.
"He's a supporter of reasonable gun controls," said political consultant Jeff Raimundo, who has worked on multiple sheriff's campaigns.
Jones has also butted heads with Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and state politicians over immigration. He was opposed to Senate Bill 54, which made California a sanctuary state.
Last April, Jones hosted ICE deputy director Thomas Homan at a public forum in Sacramento.
Fitch declined to give his position on immigration.
Jones, 50, previously said he would not run for a third term, but changed his mind after his chosen successor, Kris Palmer, a top lieutenant to Jones, dropped out of the race for "personal reasons."
Jones told The Bee he didn't want to leave the department in the hands of outsiders and re-entered the race. In a memo to staff, Jones said: “Since I am unwilling to leave the future of the Sheriff’s Department to an uncertain future, I have decided to seek another term as Sheriff.”
Despite one other declared candidate – Donna Lee Cox, a former sheriff's sergeant with 22 years of experience – Jones was widely considered the favorite in the race. But political insiders said they believed Fitch would be able to raise both money and support to be a viable contender.
Jones, however, retains support of the deputies' union.
The Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs' Association voted to endorse Jones after he announced his run for a third term in January, said Kevin Mickelson, the union’s president. The association typically votes to support the incumbent sheriff unless there is a significant problem with the candidate, he said.
The unanimous vote was cast by the 13 members of the union’s board of directors, which is made up if both sworn and non-sworn staff. “Milo entering the race will not change anything for the association,” Mickelson said. “Of the four known candidates today, we feel that he (Jones) is the best person for the job.”
Mickelson named Bret Daniels, a Citrus Heights councilman and former deputy who ran in the 2010 sheriff's race, as the fourth contender, though he has not received the necessary county papers yet to run. Daniels did not return a request for comment Monday.