PLYMOUTH – As he runs for a third term as Plymouth County Sheriff, Joseph D. McDonald Jr. points to achievements as endorsements.
The American Correctional Association’s accreditation of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, he said, offers one testimonial.
McDonald’s work on Governor Baker’s Task Force to Curb Opioid Abuse and the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative provide others.
The U.S. Marshal Service’s reliance on McDonald’s staff to house some of the nation’s highest profile criminals is yet another vote of confidence, he maintains.
The programs available to the vast majority of county inmates who will return to towns in Plymouth County, he said, provide even more assurance that he is the right man for the job.
A former assistant district attorney for the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office, McDonald has been county sheriff since 2004, when he ousted incumbent Democrat Joseph McDonough.
He breezed to re-election six years ago when his Democratic challenger withdrew from the race just after winning his party’s nomination. Plymouth Democrat Scott Vecchi challenges McDonald for his third term.
A Marshfield native, McDonald lives with his wife, Renee, and their two daughters in Kingston.
McDonald traces much of his success in office to reforms he made after winning his first sheriff’s race. The department was inundated with complaints and lawsuits, but he offered a different approach.
“One of the things I’m proud and happy to say is that since coming into this office I’ve been able to calm a lot of that. There isn’t the element of change and chaos that can ensue,” McDonald said. “I’ve had time to get into the nitty-gritty of the office. I’ve been able to learn what the job requires, able to blaze new trails.”
McDonald pointed to management restructuring that settled the prior administration’s labor disputes and changed the culture of the department.
The department had millions of dollars of outstanding judgments against it, he said, when he took over in 2004. Further, the department was spending millions on outside legal counsel.
Early on, he established his own general counsel’s office to reduce those costs. “It’s still the same two lawyers, not a team of 10 or 15. It’s two, and they do an outstanding job and they save us millions,” he said.
During his first term, he was able to regain accreditation that had lapsed from the American Correctional Association for the jail. The accreditation has been renewed ever since and will stand through 2017.
The accreditation, he said, reflects how the jail employs best practices on multiple levels.
“Yes, we know when they are coming, but it is not a simple check to make sure the beds are made. It’s everything: the overall physical layout, the policies and procedures and whether they reflect the state of the art as far as the humane treatment of inmates is concerned,” he said.
McDonald said the accreditation goes hand in hand with the U.S. Marshal Service’s vote of confidence in turning to the jail to house its highest profile prisoners, like public enemy No. 1 James “Whitey” Bulger, who was confined at the jail until his conviction.
The jail currently houses 1,140 inmates, and McDonald offers programs for the vast majority.
“We always have to be conscious that at any given time 98 percent of the people here are coming back into our communities, so we have to do a lot of rehabilitation programming,” he said.
Inmates learn job skills on the farm and behind bars. They also work with counselors on how to land employment and stay clean on the outside.
The jail also offers drug treatment and substance abuse programs as well as domestic violence prevention programs.
The prison also offers a community work program that put inmates to work on municipal projects at a great savings to towns in the county.
“Our maintenance and clean up, repair and landscaping crews save towns hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
McDonald most recently earns kudos for his work on the drug task force. One result was to take empty beds in the jail and use them for a treatment program for civilly committed substance abusers who would not otherwise get help because of overcrowding in the state program in Bridgewater.
McDonald has dedicated two pods in the jail to the program, providing treatment options for 88 men.
The department also provides a number of services to communities throughout the county, from the regional dispatch center located below the sheriff’s office, to deputy sheriffs who assist county police departments with K-9 teams and crime scene investigators.
The county’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation has responded to nearly 10,000 calls a year to help local police in evidence gathering. New state-of the art fingerprinting machines have also been installed to allow identification of suspects in minutes.
McDonald is credited with helping to preserve the county farm. Once slated for development, the working farm is one of Plymouth’s most visited destination and home to a farm-to-table inmate work program. It yielded 12,000 pounds of vegetables for donation to county food pantries and senior citizens this year alone.
McDonald also partners with public agencies to maximize regional resources. His "Safekeep” program transports arrested suspects so local police throughout the county can remain on the road.
Like his opponent, McDonald opposes Question 4, the ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use. He said he sees a connection between marijuana and harder drugs and could not support legalization at a time when the region is struggling with a heroin epidemic.
"I see first hand what the opiate epidemic has done," McDonald said. ""People serving sentences for drug crimes all tell me the same thing: that marijuana was their entree to substance abuse... The anecdotal evidence is there."
McDonald said he differs from his opponent in his approach to the job.
While Vecchi is on the road as a police officer, McDonald said he treats the sheriff’s job as an administrative position that requires certain management skills.
“We really have brought to bear a culture of excellence and accomplishment here,” McDonald said, noting he looks to empower employees and encourage innovation.
“I love coming to work every day. I love the innovative people I get to work with,” McDonald said.” I really feel like the work I’m doing now is really helping a lot of people and making a difference.”