Sunday, October 2, 2011

The (Calaveras County) Grand Jury: Under Appreciated

From the Calaveras Enterprise

By Kevin Wychopen

The grand jury. Now that is a name that sounds, well, grand. I happened to notice a cool little picture of a twisted oak in the lower right corner of the online Calaveras Enterprise. It was labeled "Grand Jury Report" and I decided to look into what was contained within that document.

I found the website for the Calaveras County grand jury, and began my investigation.

People should be aware of the power and reach of the grand jury and recognize it as a valuable community resource. Every county has one and they all seem to file reports that are available to the public and tend to be written in ordinary and understandable language. I wouldn't recommend the reports for light reading, but certainly they provide interesting fodder for the mind.

The grand jury reports for Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Amador counties all provide an opportunity to find out about issues that are facing each of these local counties and the communities within their borders.

What makes the grand jury special, to my way of thinking, is the fact that this group of dedicated citizens actually has the ability to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, inefficient or inappropriate use of public monies. It is also mandated to investigate the conditions in prisons and other detention facilities. In addition, it is an especially valuable entity because citizens can lodge complaints and requests for investigation. If the request is deemed within the purview of the jury, it can choose to devote the time and energy necessary to look into the matter.

The 2010-2011 report for Amador County had some rather startling statistics in it. The Mule Creek State Prison was the subject of a required review by members of the jury. I found out that it had an operating budget of $136,699,467, and out of that budget, $3,570,769 is for education and $52,485,060 is for health care. Now we know one part of the state's budget difficulties.

The prison was designed to hold 1,700 inmates, but in fact holds more than 3,700. According to the report, three gymnasiums have been converted into dormitories where inmates sleep in bunk units that are stacked three high. The spaces between these bunks are apparently less than commodious. So our local prison is subject to severe overcrowding, just like so many others in the state.

I was really pleased to learn that inmates are not just housed, but have opportunities for education, counseling, and academic assistance. They also have access to vocational training in areas such as landscape gardening, milling and cabinetry, electronics, welding, and assorted other useful skills. I was beginning to think, from some of the things that appear in the popular press, that rehabilitation was no longer a major part of California prisons.

In Calaveras County, reports from past years have covered a wide range of concerns. In 1999-2000, the jury investigated a number of citizen complaints regarding law enforcement, child protective services, schools, and local governmental departments. Many complaints ended up being declared unfounded or representing minor mistakes in procedures or actions.

The 2007-2008 jury looked into a number of issues including, the Community Development Agency, E. coli contamination in the Mokelumne River and the Vallecito Conservation Camp. Included in that year's report were a large number of responses to previous years' recommendations.

It seems to me that the grand jury system, with which I had little familiarity before writing this column, is an outstanding asset that provides excellent citizen oversight for the operations of many different aspects of our local communities. If you want to become enlightened about how things work in your community, the grand jury reports are a great place to start.

Perhaps more importantly, if you see something that you know is wrong, or makes no sense or seems detrimental to the health and safety of your city or town, fill in a citizen’s complaint form and your concerns may be addressed.

Kevin Wychopen is a semi-retired school counselor and weekly columnist for the Enterprise. Contact him at .

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