Electing a sheriff is not the right answer for jail reform. What’s needed is greater accountability by County Executive Budish: editorial

The best way forward on jail reforms is not to discard recent Cuyahoga County charter changes in order to elect the sheriff, but rather to bring in the experts who know how to fix jails, and who can craft a plan quickly and comprehensively, writes the editorial board.

Members of Cuyahoga County Council are right to be angry and to demand answers and a new way forward from the administration of County Executive Armond Budish to correct shocking conditions at the County Jail.

But talk of reverting to electing a sheriff — as Council President Dan Brady and Councilman Mike Gallagher did Tuesday night — is neither wise nor helpful.

County voters in their 2009 anti-corruption reform charter switched from an elected to an appointed sheriff subject to legislative confirmation for a reason — to vest accountability and responsibility clearly and unambiguously in the county executive and the 11-member County Council.

Electing the sheriff is also the wrong answer to a jail reform challenge that requires a professional steeped in knowledge about modern jail design — not a political hack.

Nor is electing the sheriff a guarantee of wise stewardship or clear-cut accountability. Quite the reverse, especially in this county that’s so dominated by one political party — where elections can, and did, under the former corrupt Democratic leadership, merely enshrine the party’s choices in office, with all that that insider political dealing implied.

That ingrained corruption extended to the county’s last elected sheriff, convicted felon Gerald McFaul, whose more than 32 years in the sheriff’s office ended in disgrace and resignation. 

Instead, Budish holds the key to a solution – in consultation with County Council and the public. That solution is urgently needed.

The U.S. Marshals Service has found “inhumane” conditions at the jail, where seven inmates died in a four-month span earlier this year. The Marshals’ report, requested by Budish, painted a deeply disturbing picture of clueless county leadership as a rogue squad of corrections officers mistreated prisoners and withheld food as punishment. One CO is under investigation for possibly contributing to the death of one of the seven inmates.

Awaiting a bond hearing or trial should not be a death sentence. But that’s today’s reality for some at County Jail.

No wonder Brady and others on County Council lashed out Tuesday at the lack of a comprehensive plan to fix things from Budish and his team.

Yes, Budish needs to act, and act soon. 

Fortunately, the Budish administration has now taken some important steps to address jail problems, including by seeking to secure outside expertise for a thorough assessment of problems and a comprehensive game plan moving forward. 

The county revealed Wednesday it’s struck a tentative consultancy deal, subject to council approval, with the American Correctional Association (ACA), which was founded in Cincinnati 149 years ago and is now based in Washington, D.C. It describes itself as “the oldest association developed specifically for practitioners in the correctional profession.”

The county also has moved juveniles at the jail away from the adult population and improved their food while also providing access to schooling and shower curtains in all units, according to a Wednesday statement from the county. The county also has taken steps to clean up the jail kitchen, reported in the Marshals’ report to have filthy walls and food trays with a vermin infestation in food preparation areas.

County Council still has to approve the proposed $38,500 agreement with the ACA. Any consultant the county hires also needs to be able to do a comprehensive systems analysis of how best to solve the interlocking problems of poor jail design, insufficient staff and inadequate planning for the consequences of adding all of the city of Cleveland’s jail inmates.

The county’s moves Wednesday show it is beginning to take action to address urgent concerns.

The best way forward on the jail is not to throw out charter reforms to elect a sheriff, but rather to bring in the experts who know how to fix jails, and who can craft an action plan to correct Cuyahoga County’s serious jail deficiencies quickly — and comprehensively. 

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer — the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.   

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