Rehrmann still seeking county control of jail Council declined to act on bill

October 24, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

The Harford County Council may have avoided problems at the Detention Center when it let legislation that would have created a county department of corrections die, but the issue is far from dead.

"I still believe that it is in the best interest of Harford County citizens that Harford County government manage the facility," County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said in an interview last week.

"I think it will be only a matter of time before that issue is back before the council."

In August, Mrs. Rehrmann proposed taking over law enforcement, emergency communications and corrections responsibilities from the independent sheriff's office in an omnibus bill that outlined a major overhaul of the county's public safety authority.

Support for the bill lagged while debate over policing authority, in particular, grew heated.

The council agreed this month to transfer the sheriff's communications operations to the county and to send the question of whether to have a county police force to voters in a referendum next year.

But the corrections legislation was not passed or sent to referendum. The council, citing the existence of too many "unanswered questions" about the Detention Center, let the bill die through inaction as the Oct. 14 deadline passed.

"The most important issue is the issue they did not vote on," Mrs. Rehrmann said of the months-long legislative process. She said the Detention Center remains a county government concern because the county is ultimately accountable fiscally for what happens there.

Chief among the "unknowns" some council members noted were the circumstances surrounding the death of inmate William M. Ford in March 1992. The sheriff's office ruled the death a suicide, but his family said he was raped and murdered.

In April, the administration agreed to pay the Ford family $400,000 after the family threatened to sue the county.

Mr. Ford's death became the subject of local, state and federal investigations. The state attorney general's office is still investigating the death, the sheriff's investigation of it and allegations of a cover-up.

Mrs. Rehrmann said that the Ford case, although it was the stimulus for her proposed takeover of the Detention Center, should not have been pivotal in the council's decision.

"The fact of the matter is, you may never know what happened in that particular incident because of the way the investigation was handled afterward," she said.

The cell where Mr. Ford was found dead was cleaned and the clothes he wore were washed before detectives began investigating.

Mrs. Rehrmann also noted the county's responsibility in the recent settlement with current and former jail employees over an early roll call policy, which cost $300,000 in reimbursements for overtime.

"These are general liability responsibilities," she said.

The county executive repeated her conviction that management the jail would improve under a county executive-appointed warden who could work with other department heads.

"If you have a warden as a county department head, that person has the support of treasury, of human resources, the law department, even social services," she said, adding that sharing resources would be a routine part of making policy decisions.

"For instance, if we're going to make a difference on recidivism, we have got to do drug and alcohol treatment programs at the Detention Center and look at additional ways of responding to that need," Mrs. Rehrmann said. "And if the Detention Center is ** under the county, we can do more in that area.

"Detention has become much more complex than it was in the past. Look at the environment today and the mix of prisoners -- from the drug dealer arrested off I-95 to the person who may be in there for driving offense. You didn't have that diverse mix in the past."

Mrs. Rehrmann would not say when she would reintroduce the legislation or how much it might change.

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