Ecker and the grand jury Executive's swipe at detention center critique is off base.

February 24, 1997

THE TOUGHEST JOB in the county may be running the detention center. Only someone who administers an institution that is both a way station for future state penitentiary inmates and a lockup for offenders serving short sentences can fully appreciate the difficulty.

But an occasional view from the outside is invaluable. That is why we find it puzzling that Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker summarily dismissed a county grand jury report that evaluated operations at the detention center and offered recommendations.

Mr. Ecker insisted that the grand jury exceeded its authority. He questioned its findings in a letter to Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. Maryland law, however, makes it clear that grand juries are required to visit the jail annually "and inquire into its condition, the manner in which it is kept and the treatment of the prisoners, and report their findings to the court."

The executive's argument that the grand jury is not allowed to critique the jail's management and internal operations is off-base. An evaluation that failed to report the detention center's problems would have been as useless as a gas attendant who checks the oil but lets a motorist drive away without advising that the tank is almost empty.

The Howard grand jury had an obligation to critique. This was not like the seriously flawed 1993 grand jury in Baltimore that sought to determine why drug kingpins were not being brought to justice. That panel operated on a subjective charge and yielded a report beyond the scope of the problem it was assigned to address. In Howard, however, the panel saw problems in hiring practices, the handling of internal reports and other specific concerns that were within its purview. It recommended the creation of an independent panel to review several areas of the jail's operation.

Regardless of whether Mr. Ecker agrees or disagrees with the findings, he went too far in trying to limit the grand jury's mission. He insists that the detention center and director James N. Rollins need only his oversight. The year-long spate of problems is a powerful argument against that. A watchful eye from the outside could bring a welcome perspective to a facility with inherent difficulties.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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