“We continue to have headlines,” grand jury foreman Gillen Young said of negative news reports on the jail and on schools in the region. “As citizens, we don’t need that type of publicity. Let’s fix the problem and move on.”
The grand jury, which met in November and December, decided to look into schools and the jail after reading in the grand jury handbook that it had the power to investigate parts of county government.
It found that the schools are in good shape, Young said. But the jail — which was the subject of a 2004 federal lawsuit — still has problems that need to be addressed, and the grand jury recommended a special grand jury be convened to investigate inadequate staffing, he said.
The panel’s request for a separate, special grand jury was unusual.
District Attorney Paul Howard said this is the first time in his 17-year tenure that a grand jury has asked for a special grand jury investigation.
“They really took their obligation very seriously,” Howard said. “What they have done is to really ask the same questions a lot of people in Fulton County have been asking for a long time.”
The 2004 lawsuit detailed dirty, dangerous and crowded conditions at the jail, and the county has struggled to meet the conditions set forth in a 2006 agreement to settle that suit. Through conversations with the sheriff and chief jailer the grand jury members found that open positions at the jail are going unfilled, Young said.
The grand jury report says there seems to be a disconnect between the county board of commissioners and the leadership at the jail because the chief jailer said there are 100 open positions but the board of commissioners said it has funded the requested positions to address the problem.
A spokeswoman for Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson said the sheriff has been advised by his lawyers not to comment on the grand jury’s findings.
The grand jury made four recommendations for the jail: that a special grand jury be convened to investigate the staffing issue; that the county board of commissioners reopen conversations with the city of Atlanta to purchase the city jail; that the chief jailer provide a report to each grand jury, to the district attorney and to a court official to identify all inmates who have been incarcerated for more than 100 days; and that the jail review the process and procedures for handling inmates with mental illness.
Grand juries are typically asked to decide whether to issue indictments in criminal cases. Georgia law says the Superior Court judges in county may impanel a special grand jury to investigate any alleged violation of state laws.
Now that Howard has received the grand jury’s recommendation, his office will present a petition to the Fulton County Superior Court judges within 30 days to ask them to convene a special grand jury, he said. The judges have no obligation to act on the petition, but Howard said he thinks they will.
Young said the grand jury chose to look at the schools because of all the negative headlines drawn by school districts in the metro Atlanta area in recent years: a standardized test cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools; Clayton County schools’ loss of accreditation in 2008; and the governor removing and replacing six of nine DeKalb County school board members last year.
The grand jurors wanted to see what controls are in place to make sure Fulton County doesn’t have similar issues, Young said. They determined the schools are in good shape and were particularly impressed with Superintendent Robert Avossa, who’s led the school system since June 2011.
Young said two things stood out: When asked about the future, the school system produced a five-year strategic plan; and Avossa held small group meetings with 7,000 teachers to find out about and address their concerns.