Candidate at a glance

NAME:
Nick Bernier
AGE:
37
RESIDENCE:
Fall River
OCCUPATION:
Attorney/partner, Rampart Law Group, LLC
ENDORSEMENTS:
Young Democrats of Massachusetts; numerous individual endorsements from legislators, public officials and others
Campaign website
Facebook

Q&A
Nick Bernier

Why are you running for Bristol County Sheriff? And why now?

I’m running because I know I can make a difference. This is actually the third campaign I’ve worked on against Sheriff Hodgson. My first state campaign I was actively involved in, I was 18 years old. I assisted Leo Pelletier, who was running to become the next sheriff back in 2004. I respect the sheriff. I think he’s a very nice person. He’s clearly a great politician. But I disagree vehemently with his policies. When he started, he had the chain gangs. He has gotten better, but I know that we can make Bristol County better. I know that the recidivism, or the revolving door, needs to get better. And I believe I can do that. When I was a prosecutor, I saw the same people going in and out of district court. They come in with a drug problem. They come back with a drug problem. Most likely, they had a drug problem throughout their time in jail. That needs to stop.

The current sheriff has presented himself as tough on crime and says hard time is the best deterrent to crime. Do you agree? If not, what would you do differently?

I think it’s important to not throw out the baby with the bath water; not everything Sheriff Tom Hodgson has done over the past 25 years is bad. Jail needs to be punitive a little bit. It needs to be a little bit uncomfortable. But it can’t just be hard-time. You have to give people the opportunity to make themselves better. Certainly you need to get the drugs out of the jails. Certainly you need rehab and mental health treatment. Certainly you have to give people a chance to finish their GED — if they don’t have one — and some job training. Right now, they finish, and they’re basically tossed out on the street. Well, what do you think they’re gonna do? They’re gonna commit another crime. That’s exactly what happened when I was a prosecutor. You’d have maybe a few weeks of a gap between their release and their re-arrest. And guess what they’re doing; they’re committing more crimes in our community and, realistically, those crimes are getting worse and worse.

So are we safer with this hard-time approach? Are we safer now than we were 25 years ago? And the answer’s just no. Why? Because people keep getting worse instead of having the chance to get better. Now, I agree with the sheriff that some people need a timeout. We can’t go all the way back and treat everyone with a slap on the wrist. Some people will continue to reoffend. Some people will graduate to the superior court and graduate to the state-run prison up in Walpole. Well for those people, they need hard-time in [prison]. But for someone with a drug abuse problem, for someone with some mental health issues, why don’t we give them some help? Do you really want them back in your neighborhood? Do you really want them back in your neighborhood untreated

Well, I don’t. I want my family to be safe. I have an 8-year-old daughter. I wanna make her safe and wanna make your family safe, too. That’s why I’m running for sheriff.

How do you view the sheriff’s immigration policies, including offering to send inmates to construct the border wall and his operation of a federal immigration detention facility? Would you have done things differently?

Completely. I actually spoke with one of those detainees. He was wrongfully detained. He ended up being released. Marco. He contacted me when I first announced, back in November. I kept up a dialogue with him and told him my intentions. I do not believe the sheriff of Bristol County should be sending inmates down to the border wall in Mexico. Another way of putting that is using Massachusetts taxpayers’ money to fund a president’s dream.

I do believe in federalism where you have a state government enforcing state priorities, and you have the federal government enforcing federal priorities. And it just didn’t make any sense. It was clearly a publicity stunt, and I think it was a waste of time and county money — all while we have this rampant drug problem and while we have a crisis with correctional officers. We can’t keep enough correctional officers on staff. We can’t keep enough social workers and mental health staff there. And while his jails are suffering, he’s doing this PR stunt. That’s a big policy mistake I believe he’s made. One that I just never would’ve made. And to my opponents’ credit in the primary: I don’t think any of us would’ve done that.

What will you do with the ICE detention facility now that it has been closed by the Biden administration?

Actually, the closed facility is a blessing. So that ICE detention center, which was closed down, would make an amazing regional lockup. One of my plans is to close the old Ash Street jail. It’s over a hundred years old. Lizzie Borden was a prisoner in there. It’s embarrassing. And something else people don’t think about: it’s a money pit. You can’t cook food in there. They’re transferring resources from Dartmouth to New Bedford. When I got involved in this campaign, I met with CO (corrections officer) after CO; I met with the current sheriff’s former chief of law enforcement. And they told me where the skeletons were.

Why is this a money pit? Well, it’s a symbol for Sheriff Hodgson. He views Ash Street as being tough on crime. Meanwhile, is it worth how much money we’re putting into it? Why don’t we just use that vacant [immigration detention] facility? We’re gonna have to retrofit it because you need single cells. That’s the only thing we’d have to do. And it’s a great screening process because that ICE center had far fewer drugs in it than the neighboring Dartmouth facility. So why don’t we learn from that? Why don’t we screen better? Why don’t we use that facility, shut down Ash street, and do something with the state? That’d be part of my action plan if I were elected sheriff.

The Ash Street Jail is one of the oldest operating detention facilities in the country. Critics have called for closing it. Will you update the facilities? Should it be closed?

Well, in 1997, there were plans to close it. Sheriff Nelson was planning to close it and turn it into a museum. The secret is, though, that it’s not really the sheriff’s responsibility. It’s state property — it’ll go through the state. So it won’t be the sheriff’s decision. I mean, I would love for it to be a halfway house or a museum or, or really anything productive in the city of New Bedford, but anyone in that position just won’t have that much control. So I believe a private-public partnership would be great. Turn that into a museum and maybe use some of the facilities nearby as a halfway house. I think that would be amazing.

The suicide rate for inmates in Bristol County is higher than in other Massachusetts counties? Why is that, and what would you do to prevent suicides?

I believe it’s caused by multiple factors. I believe it’s a lack of mental health treatment, first and foremost. I unfortunately lost a friend, in part due to this. He had bipolar disorder. He was being treated with lithium. He committed a stupid crime, and he had to serve some time. Unfortunately, he had to wait about three months to actually receive his proper dosage of lithium. And lithium is not one of those drugs that you can turn on and off. No, it’s a very delicate medication. That’s a problem — not just in Bristol county — but especially in Bristol county because we’re so tough on crime. We really need to work on making sure inmates, if they’re prescribed proper medication, continue to receive it.

It’s not only for their benefit, but also think about this: if you’re a correctional officer, do you really want someone who’s off their medication? Well, they’re gonna react very erratically, very dangerously. If you talk to a correctional officer who currently works in Bristol County, some of them are scared. It’s a difficult job, very difficult job. And that’s why you have so much forced overtime, because they can’t find enough people to do that job. I think that’s part of what needs to change. We need to provide better working conditions for our correctional officers and related staff. Part of that is making sure our inmates are properly medicated when they’re prescribed those medications.

Contact Colin Hogan and Eleonora Bianchi at chogan@newbedfordlight.org and ebianchi@newbedfordlight.org.


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