Run Milo Run
Milo Fitch is the nerdy renegade the Sheriff’s Department needs
Sheriff Scott Jones is beginning to gather an air of inevitability around his quest for a third term in office. And why shouldn’t he? After a discombobulated summer and fall, in which Jones: 1. announced his retirement, 2. watched his preferred successor bow out of the race and 3. leaped back into campaign mode, things are finally leveling out for a three-peat.
Thus far, two minor-league challengers are the only things standing in Jones’ way.
Milo Fitch could change that—if he decides to.
You may not know his name, but few people wearing badges have left their imprint on California’s criminal justice system the way Milo Fitch has. Fitch saw the failures of America’s drug war up close in the 1990s, then spent the next two decades as an unassuming change agent, trying to right what was so wrong. Fitch helped shoulder the paradigms to where they are now—at a critical juncture, between the rational forces that support sentencing and bail reform and the fearmongers who want to kick off a new prison industrial age.
That is the choice. Fitch and Jones come down on different sides of it.
Fitch is Jones’ onetime mentor—the Obi-Wan to the sheriff’s Anakin Skywalker. Where critics say Jones shifted right toward the dark side, Fitch’s supporters credit him with being the wise elder in league with the forces of good.
“He could change the trajectory of that office for a long time,” says Sacramento County homicide prosecutor Noah Phillips, a candidate for district attorney who wants Fitch to run. “The criminal justice system swings on a pendulum. There is a window here.”
That window closes with the March 9 filing deadline. There are many who hope Fitch slips through it while there’s still some light left.
From warrior to reformer
Fitch’s reputation wasn’t always as someone who wanted to change the system from the inside. In the beginning, he was still figuring out the best way to serve it.
“I think if you saw Milo’s background before he took over the jails, you would not think that he would be a guy to work with ex-offenders,” says Fitch’s current boss, Charles “Chuck” Pattillo, general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority, or CalPIA, an agency tasked with making sure inmates find the jobs that prevent them from returning to prison. “I mean, he spent the first 25 years of his career putting people away.”
Throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Fitch worked assignments in internal affairs, narcotics and gangs, where he became a recognized expert on white supremacist factions. (That’s in contrast to Jones, who spent little time on the streets before he started climbing the ladder from behind a desk.)
As Fitch rose in rank, he began to see how merciless tough-on-crime laws meant to prop up the drug war, such as three-strikes and mandatory-minimum sentences, turned low-level offenders into prison-packing commodities. In a May 2017 op-ed for SN&R, Fitch reflected on how he began to view the job differently.
“I was a soldier in the war on drugs,” he wrote. “I spent 33 years with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, six of those years as a sergeant in the Narcotics/Gang Division, where our mission was to arrest as many people as possible for drug-related offenses. Our mission had no regard for outcomes, other than prison as the solution.
“We now realize that arresting and imprisoning is not the solution to end drug addiction,” Fitch went on to write. “We are a great nation held back by how we handle substance abuse. Some cite law enforcement as the problem, but I believe that we can lead the charge to the solution. It’s true that it requires a paradigm shift. But this 33-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department is proof that hearts and minds can change.”
Those who know him say that’s vintage Fitch.
“That’s not make believe,” says Matt Powers, a retired Sacramento Police Department official who served as CalPIA’s GM before Pattillo. “That’s an accurate reflection of who Milo Fitch truly is. He’s a good cop. He’s exceptionally well-skilled. He’s making a big difference for men and women behind bars.”
That work started in earnest seven years ago, when Fitch took command of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, or RCCC, the main custodial facility for people serving local sentences. Fitch became the jail’s captain a few months before Assembly Bill 109 redefined California’s penitentiary system, offloading hundreds of thousands of lower-tier inmates from overcrowded prisons to overwhelmed local jails.
Jones was one of many sheriffs to excoriate the state’s plan to avoid a federal takeover of its prisons. Fitch welcomed it as an opportunity: The offenders being rerouted to Sacramento County were local residents who were going to get out. Fitch wanted to make sure they got the help they needed so they wouldn’t come back.
“I think he really went down there on his own request because he saw what was going on and he saw a way to help folks,” Pattillo says. “Milo got all that, and some people had to be drug along.”
Where Jones fought to spend the millions of strings-free state cash on additional jail beds, Fitch fought to use the money on education, vocational and addiction programs. He brought together jailers, judges, cops and probation officers with addiction specialists, vocational trainers and adult education leaders to sit on a “reentry council” and devise strategies to help offenders succeed in society. He instituted individualized needs assessments, and became a proponent of buzzy academic concepts like evidence-based practices and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“We wanted to deal with inmates as individuals,” Fitch told California Forward, the bipartisan government-reform group, of his approach. “The cost both to the county, the taxpayers and then to humanity is far too great just to lock somebody up and throw away the key.”
While plenty of officials parrot similar talking points, these aren’t empty platitudes to Fitch. Sacramento Councilman Steve Hansen learned this in 2012, shortly after beginning his first term. The main jail was located in Hansen’s downtown district, and the freshman politician wanted to get a handle on AB 109’s impact on his constituents. He started attending reentry council meetings and found himself pulled in by Fitch’s moral compass.
“He seemed to be really interested in the right thing to do, rather than the politically expedient thing,” Hansen recalls. “He was really a phenomenal leader—and a great partner.”
After Fitch retired, the reentry council quietly dissolved. Hansen says he doesn’t even know who took over Fitch’s job within the department. The City Council, which has adopted sanctuary protections for undocumented residents, has an icy relationship with the current sheriff, who has criticized such policies.
“His view is just really narrow,” Hansen says of Jones. “There doesn’t seem to be much to talk about.”
Not all of Fitch’s initiatives died with him.
RCCC’s culinary training program served as a model for the one CalPIA started, Pattillo says. And a year before he retired, Fitch partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to create a unique program that teaches inmates to saddle-train wild mustangs. The adoption program has drawn widespread media attention, usually without Fitch’s name attached, which is probably fine by him.
Jones’ jail captain wouldn’t allow one of the program’s supervisors to speak to SN&R about Fitch’s role.
Dragged into the spotlight
Fitch declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he didn’t want to detract from his current mission—which is just so damn typical of the approach that has allowed him to fly under the radar while shaking things up.
About a year ago, Fitch was tapped to oversee the career technical education division at CalPIA. The guy who headhunted Fitch says he’s been doing yeoman’s work.
Pattillo calls Fitch “a very formidable executive” who nurtures a screamingly low recidivism rate (about 7 percent of the offenders Fitch oversees end up back in prison). Fitch has also doubled the size of his division and almost tripled the amount of grant money coming from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“Bottom line, he knows how to run programs and he knows people,” Pattillo says. “Really the only thing I had to show him was where the bathrooms were, and he was good.”
Pattillo says his workforce development chief is regularly asked to serve as Gov. Jerry Brown’s consigliere on local crime and justice matters. Such influence means Fitch’s name frequently gets tossed around when Capitol insiders draft picks in their political fantasy league.
“I think he’s got a really good shot at making an impact,” says Jeff Raimundo, a retired campaign consultant who says he would get back in the game to help Fitch run for sheriff. (Raimundo also used to cover politics for the Sacramento Bee.) “There are a lot of layered reasons why somebody like Milo Fitch could successfully challenge Scott Jones.”
Matt Powers agrees and disagrees at the same time.
The retired police official first knew Fitch by his sterling reputation as “a good, solid cop with lots of experience,” then got to know him personally when Fitch was running county corrections and Powers was guiding CalPIA.
Powers, who now runs a charter school for adults, thinks Fitch would make an excellent sheriff, but doubts he can unseat a formidable incumbent like Jones, who carries water in the suburbs and draws some of the highest vote totals of any candidate in Sacramento County. But Powers actually has bigger designs for his old colleague, who has now toiled on both sides of the correctional aisle.
“I think we’d be wasting Milo’s talent if he ran for sheriff,” Powers says. “Down the road, I think he should be secretary of corrections.”
Not everyone wants to wait. Phillips, Raimundo and others think now is the time to strike against Jones, whose policies have put him out of step with the Me Too movement, Californian’s stance on immigration and shifting attitudes toward guns following the Parkland, Fla., tragedy. Hansen likes the idea of Fitch as the next sheriff, saying he “understands the department and can lead it through a changing time, and bring back some of the pride the department lost” under Jones.
Fitch, who is married to a criminal defense attorney and has two adult children working for the Sheriff’s Department, is reluctant to put his family in the crosshairs of a muck-throwing election, those close to him say. But Pattillo, for one, knows his workforce development chief is being lobbied hard to take a crack at Jones. And he’s OK with it.
“I know he’s being recruited to run for sheriff, and he would be the consummate professional in the sheriff’s job. He’s not a politician. He’s very honest. Very ethical. He understands how both sides of law enforcement work,” Pattillo tells SN&R. “And I would be afraid for anyone running against him, if he ever decided to do it. Because if he decides to jump in the race, he will win the race. That is a cop’s cop.”