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Leigh would re-focus the role of Essex sheriff

The Daily Item - 8/30/2022

Aug. 30—LYNN — Virginia Leigh, a clinical social worker who has a history of working in detention centers, community clinics, schools, in-home intensive family therapy for high-risk youth and adolescence and currently has her practice specializing in cross-cultural therapy and victims of trauma is running for Essex County sheriff.

Leigh believes that the job of the sheriff should be focused on rehabilitation and reentry into society. Her approach is centered on human services with the priority to reduce recidivism. She said she views the criminal justice system as a relay race where law enforcement has an initial job and is then passed on to the courts. Leigh believes that every component in the relay race is essential to accomplishing justice to ensuring public safety, but they require very different experience.

As a social worker, Leigh has noticed an increase in opioid-related death in Essex County and recidivism rates that remain at 47 percent. Compared to other counties on the western side of Massachusetts, recidivism rates are much lower. That is because according to Leigh, there is a legacy of human service expertise in other departments.

As stated by Leigh, incumbent Sheriff Kevin Coppinger talks about a lot of programs implemented in the Sheriff's Department currently but the stagnation of recidivism rates is indicative of where we are as a county in battling and responding to the opioid epidemic. Leigh asserts the need of having leaders that are acknowledging and implementing, not dragging their feet on the evidence-based treatments that exist and support people coming out of addiction.

Evidence-based treatments are treatments that have been shown in research to be effective at helping people battle addiction, depression and process and overcome trauma. According to Leigh, when evidence-based treatments are not being used, you end up setting the entire department and then ultimately the community backwards.

When someone successfully reenters the community after their time in incarceration, they make the job of law enforcement that much easier in addition to improving public safety. Leigh suggests no-cost calls that help families stay connected. She affirms that even though no-cost calls are being investigated by the state and are proposing to open a fund, sheriffs still have the power to make the choice individually for the counties that they oversee.

According to Leigh, thanks to human service professionals in the job of sheriffs, GED programs and medication-assisted treatments were implemented in prisons.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing the criminal justice system today? How do you plan to tackle it?

"Acknowledge and implement evidence-based treatments. This is something that as a clinician and certainly in the health care field we have to be up on the research. We have to know what's going on and unfortunate over the last years we have seen lawsuits from the ACLU for our current administration's denial of evidence-based treatments that are the right by the law under the ADA being denied to prisoners and then that is the way we kind of come across the finish line and actually begin to implement the treatments."

Q: If elected, how will you work to reduce recidivism rates among the incarcerated?

"Recidivism rates are shown to be reduced when programming is evidence-based, it has a research component to it that means collecting data on how people engage in the program and how that program has supported their transformation or their different choices in their life and we also need to have data-driven programming. When we know what's working and not working, and we have the ability to report on that, that's when we can make educated decisions about what programs should stay and what programs should strap."

"Another way that we reduce recidivism is by using the research on what reduces recidivism to inform our policies. For example, research has shown that when prisoners stay connected to families while incarcerated, recidivism rates go down."

Q: What can you bring to this position that you believe your opposing candidate will not?

"My commitment as a sheriff is that I am going to spend every or one of my days in office making sure that I am implementing data-driven evidence-based programs and reporting back to the community about not just whether they are doing well but also what we are learning about what's not going well."

Q: What is the strongest quality you can bring to the job?

"My capacity to problem solve. Every profession problem solves in a very different way and that doesn't make them bad or good. Human service professionals problem solves in the ways that we understand the ecology of the person's condition and we have seen the evidence of what happens when we put human services professionals administrating jails."

Alexandra Rodriguez can be reached at


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