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Criminal justice system needs thorough airing


Published: Sun, September 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.


There is only one plausible reason for barring reporters and the public from meetings of the Mahoning County criminal justice review committee: Individuals involved in what has been described as a "dysfunctional" system don't want us to know the extent of the dysfunction.
The explanation proffered by county Prosecutor Paul Gains for closing the doors to the taxpayers is disingenuous. Gains contends that the 12-member committee isn't a public body and, therefore, is not governed by Ohio's open meetings laws.
Just because Gains can argue that the meetings don't have to be open under state law, doesn't mean they shouldn't be open in the public's interest.
The committee was formed because federal Judge David D. Dowd demanded it -- after he received a report from the special master appointed by him to oversee the Mahoning County jail.
The master, Atty. Vincent M. Nathan of Toledo, pulled no punches in his 22-page evaluation. Nathan contended that the jail's problems "are the result of a dysfunctional criminal justice system," and he recommended the formation of a working group to address the myriad problems affecting law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor's office, the courts and the jail.
Nathan suggested that representatives of the courts, the sheriff and prosecutor, police in Youngstown, Austintown and Boardman, the county auditor and the Community Corrections Association serve on the panel. He has set an end-of-the-year deadline for a remedial plan to be in place, with interim reports to be filed on Oct. 1 and Nov. 15.
If the report was not veiled in secrecy -- it was filed in the court and is a public document -- why should the work of the panel charged with addressing its findings be hidden from public view? It should not.
People's business
The absence of a quorum of any public body, such as all three commissioners, means nothing. This is not about the composition of the committee, it's about the issues members are addressing. And those issues are the people's business.
Commissioner John McNally IV, a former law director in the city of Youngstown, joins Gains in the fine art of obfuscation, suggesting that the group should meet behind closed doors because of the ongoing lawsuit against the county jail and Sheriff Randall Wellington.
The inmates sued on the grounds that jail overcrowding was a violation of their constitutional rights. That legal action precipitated Judge Dowd's appointment of the special master, but the work of the committee is not directly related to the claims of the inmates. The 12 panel members are not charged with finding a solution to prison overcrowding. That's what the judge is doing.
Indeed, the special master's call for a court docket efficiency study clearly shows that he wanted a big-picture review of the criminal justice system. Nathan has asked Dowd to hire two University of Toledo professors to track the time that elapses from arrest to final disposition of cases.
Gains, McNally and the other members of the review committee should recognize the need to conduct business in the open. People need to hear first-hand, not through the filter of a spokesman, why the special master concluded that Mahoning County's criminal justice system is "dysfunctional."


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