Until recently, it was uncommon to hear about a grand jury being called in Oklahoma, and certainly in Tulsa County. Our history has been that criminal charges were brought by the district attorney or attorney general following an investigation which was conducted by a law enforcement agency.
However, over the past six months, we have heard that several grand juries in this area have been called to look into matters such as suspicious causes of death, allegations of political corruption, allegations of malfeasance in public office, and other matters.
Most people's knowledge about the grand jury system is limited to what they see on television. But the importance of the grand jury system and the serious role it plays in our community is something every citizen in Tulsa needs to understand.
Later this month, Judge William Kellough, in response to a citizen petition, will empanel a grand jury to look into allegations of possible misdeeds in Owasso city government.
The founders of Oklahoma thought the role of the grand jury was so important that it was put into the Oklahoma Constitution in Article 2, Sec. 18, and in the Oklahoma statutes, Title 38, Sec. 101 through 108. Even more significant, Oklahoma is one of only six states that allow citizens to collect signatures on petitions in order to request a county grand jury to convene.
The grand jury is made up of twelve (12) qualified electors from the county. The purpose of the grand jury is to serve in a similar role as a law enforcement agency in terms of doing the fact-finding investigation into matters of community concern.
Some of the key elements about a grand jury are: its work is done in private, and there is no judge present; the records produced during the work of the grand jury are not open for public inspection; there is a representative from the DA's office present to assist the grand jury as it looks into the facts surrounding the reason they were called.
The grand jury has the power to compel the production of documents, subpoena witnesses, and ultimately decide if criminal charges should be brought. At the conclusion of the hearings, the jurors vote on the proposed charge (the indictment) drafted by the prosecutor. All of this seems pretty cut and dried in terms of what the average person believes a grand jury does.
But there is another very important role of the grand jury of which even many of those most familiar with the legal system are not aware.
Any time a grand jury is called in Oklahoma, the jurors must also inspect the county jail and other detention facilities within the county. That's right. The jurors have to inspect our detention facilities along with their investigative duties.
Given all of the attention this year with jail overcrowding and issues of mentally ill inmates, this is a critical and fortuitous time for the grand jury involvement.
Not only are they required to inspect these facilities, but, according to Oklahoma statute Title 57, Section 59, their duty is also "to issue a report, recommendation, or complaint and it shall be imperative upon the board of county commissioners to issue the necessary orders, or cause to be made the necessary repairs, in accordance with the complaint or recommendation of the grand jury." In some ways, this approach is even better than hiring and paying costly consultants.
The grand jury's duties are to inspect the jail and other detention facilities, even though there are no claims or allegations of misconduct being brought against law enforcement or the conditions of the jail. For some reason, the statutory duty to inspect the jail was thrown into the lap of every grand jury called, regardless of the purpose for the grand jury in the first place.
This means that these twelve jurors must go into the jail armed with instructions and a checklist of items they must inspect. This is not a field trip or a citizen's tour, but a chance for citizens to look closely at all aspects of jail operations.
Like the criminal investigation aspects of the grand jury's purpose, in its role as jail inspectors, the grand jury can call witnesses--law enforcement and correctional officers as well as local experts who may have personal knowledge and dealings with these facilities. It can also receive reports and consider the recommendations contained therein on improvements. In essence, they are Tulsa County's eyes and ears when it comes to the problems of these facilities and the solutions being proposed.
From a practical standpoint, the role of the grand jury, in terms of looking into the needs of the jail and the juvenile justice system, is far superior to the more traditional ways of informing and educating the public on the needs for public improvements. Once the jurors have done their investigation, their report and results can be made public and will be the source of great media interest.
The reason a grand jury approach has such validity is because the jurors will be allowed to do that which is often missing when public improvements are being advocated. That is, the citizen jurors actually get in the middle of the issue by becoming the community's fact-finders as opposed to just being in the audience after public officials have gathered the facts and try to sell the public on the need.
Once the grand jury has finished its inspection of the jail and juvenile facilities, it will make its findings of facts and conclusions and recommendations to the Tulsa Board of County Commissioners.
As the statute states, it is "imperative" that they issue the necessary orders or make the necessary repairs.
It would seem clear that the intent and purpose of the language chosen for this statute was to drive home to the county commissioners that once the citizen grand jurors have spoken, the government needs to listen and take action.
Given the heightened interest in the challenges facing the jail, the timing of the grand jury's report could be perfect, politically speaking.
The grand jury report could recommend to the Board of County Commissioners that our detention facilities need improvements and that an election be called to address serious issues with both the jail and juvenile facilities. If that's what the citizen jurors believe, then the verdict is in.
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