By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
Since the sixteenth century, the duties of sheriffs in England dealt chiefly with judicial issues, enforcement of debt, and service of process. . . .In the eighteenth century there was a shinning star in the position that would have considerable impact upon the future of criminal justice. John Howard, Sheriff of Bedfordshire, brought great status to his office by his committed and life long efforts to improve the conditions of prisons.
Howard was the son of a merchant and was brought up within England's emerging middle class. In 1756, while traveling abroad to Portugal, he and the crew of the ship he was traveling on was captured by a privateer. Howard, the crew, and passengers were incarcerated in France under extreme conditions. He was eventually returned to England on parole and later he secured release of his fellow prisoners through negotiations with the French government. This unfortunate and wrongful situation influenced Howard with a life-long concern for the incarcerated.
After his return to England, John Howard became a country squire and petitioned the Crown for a position as sheriff so he could impact prison issues. In 1773, he was appointed high sheriff of Bedfordshire and in this position he became a social activist for penal reform. He exercised the traditional but usually neglected responsibility of visiting prisons and institutions. He was shocked at the conditions, particularly that jailers received no salary but made their living from prisoners in the form of fees. Many prisoners who had been discharged by the court system still remained in custody because they could not pay the discharge fees owed to their jailers.
Howard, with an impassioned drive, inspected prisons, prison ships, and houses of corrections throughout Europe and the United States. Universally, he found all the facilities overcrowded, undisciplined, dirty, and ridden with disease. Thousands of prisoners were dying annually of diseases that were aggravated by the conditions of their confinement. Howard's graphic descriptions of prison conditions horrified the English people. In 1779, he drafted the "Penitentiary Act" which would have a profound effect on the future of penology.
The "Penitentiary Act" was based upon principles of secure and clean facilities, systematic inspections by outside interest groups, the abolition of prison based fees, and a reformatory structure for the inmates. Prisoners were to be confined to individual cells at night and were required to work long hours at heavy labor during the day. Howard believed that prison should not just be a place for industry and labor but also a place for contrition and penitence. The purpose of a penitentiary, according to Howard, was to be a place that reformed inmates through the inculcation of good habits and religious instruction. All prisoners were to have healthy diets, access to conveniences that allowed for good hygiene, and all prisoners were to be provided with uniforms.
Finally, Howard . . . felt that the best way to promote rehabilitation was to influence prisoners through a qualified staff that were interested in providing care. . . The proposed paying sound wages and to only hire "non-gambling" and "non-drinking" men of high moral character. Though many of Howard's ambitions were idealistic and beyond the scope of the times, his work on prison reform provided the impetus for the penitentiary movement.
Since midway through the sixteenth century until the present time, the office of sheriff in England has had little political clout or government importance compared to the wealth of power that it once had during medieval times. The position of justice of the peace had relieved the last vestiges of the position's former judicial duties. The Lord's Lieutenant took away its military importance and appointment powers of the office were taken away from the king and transferred to parliament. This took away all of the king's political patronage that had previously been so important to the position. The serious decline of the office might have been the death of the sheriff if it had not been for England's colonization. Finding new life on different soil would allow this faltering office to flourish in a transplanted environment. Invigorated in the New World, the office of sheriff would find a whole new potential.