Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker on Monday urged the county legislature to transfer responsibility for the troubled jail to the sheriff's office, now headed by interim Sheriff Darryl Forte.
"I think it's time to act," she said, and urged legislators to "find a way" to make it happen. The jail has been under the supervision of the county executive's office since the early 1970s.
The proposal was not on the agenda, so the legislature took no immediate action, and most likely cannot force the issue without the cooperation of County Executive Frank White.
Scott Burnett, who chairs the legislature, told The Star that the county charter denies the legislature the power to do what Peters suggested.
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"We cannot transfer the jail by ordinance," he said. "It has to be a vote of the people."
A number of legislators have voiced their support for letting voters decide. Transferring the jail to the sheriff's office was among several changes to the county charter that legislators had intended to put on the August ballot.
But the overall proposal is now being reworked for a possible vote in November.
Baker said she would rather not wait for a charter change, fearing that if the county doesn't act soon to deal with issues of violence, sanitation and other problems within the jail a federal judge will issue a decree and take charge. That would limit the county's options on how much to spend or what to do to improve conditions at the jail.
This jail and its predecessor in the courthouse were under federal supervision during much of the 1970s through the 2000s.
Although the legislature could not move supervision to Forte on its own, White could.
Baker praised White for making some physical improvements at the Jackson County Detention Center over the past 12 months. "I think, however, there are very critical problems that need to be addressed (now)," she said.
County legislator Dan Tarwater said he was disheartened by White's response last month to a grand jury report on conditions in the jail. White had characterized the report as being a political attack against him by Baker.
Baker said, however, "I don't have a vendetta. I do not. I have a duty."
Earlier in the day, she expressed her concern in a letter to legislators.
Tarwater acknowledged that White could impede any effort by the legislature to transfer responsibilities for the jail, but asked White's chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, whether his boss might be willing to go along with Baker's suggestion.
Clifford said White's administration is "focused on how to improve the facility" and happy to work with the legislature in making progress.
But he said he could not speak for White on whether he would agree to transferring the jail to Forte, who White selected to replace Sheriff Mike Sharp after Sharp's sudden resignation amid scandal.
White was not at the meeting. Clifford said he had another engagement.
Forte was there, but left without making any comments. Later in a direct message via Twitter, he offered his thought on Baker's proposal this way:
"I am prepared to lead the sheriff's department through any transition of administration that County Executive White deems appropriate. My primary focus since my appointment to sheriff several weeks ago has been on improving the method of registering and monitoring sex offenders."
At the meeting, three members of the grand jury discussed their investigation and denied that they had any political motives in writing their report after a months-long probe.
One said his fellow jurors were "disheartened" by comments White made when the report was release that they felt impugned their impartiality.
"We worked very hard to keep politics out of this report," John Johnson said.