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Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' Response to Grand Jury Reports

The following originally appeared in the Orange County Register on July 17, 2013.

Grand jury jail reports imprudent

OC Sheriff’s Department committed to high level of efficiency.


By Sandra Hutchens

The 2012-13 county grand jury recently released two reports concerning operations within the Orange County Jail system. The reports included many positive comments about the work done by the men and women of the Orange County Sheriff's Department and their efforts to keep our jails operating at a high level of efficiency. Unfortunately, the reports also contained some misguided findings and commentary that portrayed our jail operations and staff in an inaccurate and unfair manner.

The first report, entitled "Jail Rehabilitation Programs, Are They Effective?" was released May 31. The department offers over 50 inmate educational and recreational programs, many of which are required by law and must be provided. The grand jurors examined these programs and criticized the department for not having metrics to determine the effectiveness of each program specifically as it relates to the program's success in reducing recidivism.

But the grand jury failed to appreciate the era in which these programs were created, and the significant paradigm shift that has recently taken place in the county jail system as a result of public safety realignment. Prior to realignment, most inmates in the county jail served relatively short sentences (typically a few days or weeks). Inmates were not in custody long enough to participate in intensive rehabilitation programs designed to make meaningful, life changing impacts. Therefore, there was no way to provide a valid, scientific metric to measure success. However, with the new sentencing guidelines for felons now housed in the county jails, we have an inmate population that will serve longer sentences and be available for more intensive programming.

The Department has always examined each program carefully to ensure taxpayer resources are being used wisely and as mandated by law. In this new era of realignment, we will offer programs of value to our inmates and will strengthen those programs with the use of realistic metrics.

In the "Detention Facilities Report," released June 27, the grand jury accused department supervisors of failing to abide by confidentiality rules. In making this charge, the grand jury left the impression that the Department's supervisors were nefariously pressing employees for information and details of their interviews with grand jurors. I take such accusations extremely seriously. Since I began my tenure as sheriff, I have worked diligently to ensure that our department is open and transparent to the public. To be clear, this particular grand jury's method of admonishment of confidentiality was inconsistent with the practice of past grand juries, which utilized this tool in the grand jury room when employees were providing testimony. In fact, the California attorney general's opinion upon which the grand jury relies in its report (No. 02-1108) addresses the grand jury's authority to admonish witnesses not to disclose information that the witnesses learned in the grand jury room.

The attorney general stated: "We conclude that in order to carry out the Legislature's policy of preserving the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, a grand jury, sitting in its civil watchdog capacity, may admonish a witness not to disclose what the witness learns in the grand jury room." (Emphasis added.) The grand jury must understand that questions were raised when an individual grand juror came to the jail, demanded to speak with particular employees and then admonished those employees to keep their conversation confidential or risk contempt of court. Our department members were instructed to be fully cooperative and to provide any and all information requested by the grand jury. Supervisors spoke with their employees, not to violate the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings, but to ensure that complete information was provided to the grand juror who requested it.

The grand jury can play, and has played, a critical role in our system. Grand jurors provide the perspective and opinion of a lay person that can be a useful tool for public policy makers. However, if they abandon fact in exchange for innuendo and sensationalism, the grand jury's value diminishes. A new grand jury began its term July 1. I thank these dedicated citizens for their willingness to take on a tough job and look forward to working with them in an open and honest manner.

To view the article in the Orange County Register visit:  http://www.ocregister.com/articles/grand-517172-jury-department.html