Jackson County citizens have been looking for decisive leadership when it comes to its dangerous and overcrowded county jail. This week, they got it from county prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.
Baker abruptly and wisely resigned from County Executive Frank White’s jail task force before it even met for the first time. Let’s be clear: The committee is nothing more than White’s latest attempt to stall and obfuscate when it comes to improving conditions inside the jail and moving toward a desperately needed new facility.
White seems to be afraid to lead. In recent months, two consultants have issued reports outlining urgent concerns with the downtown Kansas City facility and proposing remedies. Two years ago, another task force detailed problems with underpaid corrections officers.
Baker recognized White’s call for one more task force for what it is: another needless delay. Writing just days after a life-threatening, unrelenting eight-minute assault on a guard, Baker said what desperately needed saying:
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“It’s clear that action is required immediately,” she wrote in letter resigning from the task force. “Community input may be helpful in guiding your staff regarding impacts related to long-term solutions. But action is required now to fix the immediate problems at the jail.”
County officials already have discussed expanding the house-arrest program as a way to reduce overcrowding. Yet, that’s an issue White wants his task force to address.
Baker recognizes that the time has come to begin making decisions about the size, location and cost of a new jail. Spending more months reviewing the dangerous conditions that everyone knows already exist simply makes no sense. Taking time for more study only endangers guards, staff and inmates.
Baker’s decision to resign from the task force before it even got up and running is a bold and important statement from a leading county official. Citizens should take note.
White is increasingly isolated on the most important issue facing the county. And other task force members should consider joining Baker in protesting the county executive’s inaction.
As consultant Jim Rowenhorst told legislators in August, the question now is, “What are you going to do tomorrow?” White, though, wants to wait another six months for his task force to come up with more findings.
With reports from two respected consultants already completed, the question now is how to respond to their findings. As The Star’s Mike Hendricks points out, county legislators saw those reports as road maps for the future. But White apparently sees them as mere starting points for conversation.
The price of waiting is steep. The ugly attack on the jail guard is merely one consequence. County insiders wouldn’t be surprised if more unrest follows. Overcrowded conditions persist. Meantime, class-action lawsuits are flying. Baker and other county officials are growing increasingly nervous about what might happen tomorrow and the day after.
Baker has emerged as the leader Jackson County needs at a critical time. Other task force members should join her and send an unequivocal message that the time for action is now.