On the heels of last month's scathing grand jury report about living conditions, safety and management of the Jackson County Detention Center, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker wants the administrative duties for the jail transferred from the county executive to the county sheriff.
Baker sent a letter to members of the County Legislature, as well as County Executive Frank White, and reiterated her hope during Monday's Legislature meeting in Kansas City. Such a move is one of the recently proposed county charter changes that could go before county voters in November, but the prosecutor wants a more proactive approach.
“I am formally asking this body to find a mechanism to move this jail to the county sheriff,” Baker told the legislators. “I have thought about that for quite some time. I would simply say to find a way. I'm asking this not to impugn the individual who runs the jail. But we have a problem, and it continues to be a problem.”
How exactly that change would happen isn't clear. Baker and Legislator Dan Tarwater acknowledged that such a move likely would draw resistance from White and his chief of staff Caleb Clifford, if not another lawsuit. But the county has been dealing with multiple lawsuits stemming from the jail's problems, and another alleged rape inside the facility is being investigated.
“It's not as if I seek conflict,” Baker said. “I'd like to see this county come together and work together.”
Baker said she's worried that if the county doesn't progress on fixing the jail, a federal judge will be issuing a decree, and “We will have little say if we let it get to that point.”
White was not present at Monday's meeting. Darryl Forte, named as interim sheriff last month after Mike Sharp resigned under duress, was present but did not offer any comment afterward.
Clifford said the administration is focused of fixing the problems and added that while Sheriff Forte is “fully capable” of overseeing the jail through his office, working on such a move with the Legislature is not his decision, but White's.
Clifford said White had to attend to another arrangement, to which Tarwater displayed some skepticism.
“Because this was coming up?” he said. “It just kind of makes you wonder sometimes.”
The 71-page report, which resulted from the work of two grand juries empaneled by Baker, initially drew a sharp response from White, who said the prosecutor's office was using the report as a political opportunity – blaming the current administration for problems that existed long before. Peters Baker, some legislators and one grand jury member who read the group's response to White all said they were disheartened at that response.
“We knew we had to keep politics out of this document,” grand jury member John Johnson said, reading from the letter to White.
Fellow grand jury member B.K. Christopher said while she doesn't see the jail's issues as any one person's fault, “Building a jail is not going to solve the problem unless you fix how you're running it.
“Our community deserves better; a healthy jail is vital to a healthy community.”
Diana Turner, named late last year as Director of Corrections, said after the meeting that her department is invested in the same concerns the grand jury expressed. She said she will “do the best I can” however any jail administration change might pan out.
Peters Baker said afterward she discussed her request with Forte prior to the meeting, and while she doesn't know ultimately what will happen, she said the new sheriff could take on the task.
“Sheriff Forte is a good person and will step up to the call of duty when asked,” she said. “I feel confident about that.”
During the meeting, Tarwater told Turner the big issues had existed long before her.
“It's time to change this, it's time to get this right,” he said.
Legislators noted that they have approved every jail funding request for years.
“By and large, there has been a void in leadership,” Legislator Dennis Waits, of Independence, said. “I've found it exasperating that we can't get something done. It's been a disaster.
“I hope something happens in the county that makes you (grand jurors) glad you took this step.”
Legislator Greg Grounds, of Blue Springs, who introduced the proposed charter changes last month, said he would support an ordinance that transfers jail administration, as it would best serve the public.
Alfred Jordan, of Kansas City, said it is “frustrating” to see that staffing continues to be a big issue, though he added he took exception to the assertion that law enforcement bias is not a factor in the jail population's racial makeup.
Legislator Garry Baker, of Buckner, said this is perhaps the fourth jail study the county has seen during his short term, including a group White convened that is due to issue a report later this summer, “and I was ready to go on the second one. I’m tired of talking about it; let's do something about it.”
Christopher urged that county leaders need to do “something different.”
“Please, please, please put politics aside and fix this problem,” she said. “Please don't bury this report or let it become a political football.”