Commentary : Grand Juries Can Have an Impact

September 07, 1986|LEONARD LAHTINEN | Leonard Lahtinen was foreman pro tem of the 1985-86 Orange County Grand Jury

Have Orange County grand juries been failing in their civil watchdog functions? Have they been crippled by lack of experience and skills? Although the recent Times articles on the grand jury system carried those allegations about the state's juries in their headlines, I can assure Orange County residents that the grand jury system is working here.

Grand juries do two types of work--civil and criminal. Some evidence of the civil work is found in the report each jury submits at the end of its term. The 567-page final report of the 1985-86 Orange County Grand Jury consists of 15 reports completed by its committees and approved by the jury. Topics include the effectiveness of the county's new voting system, evaluations of the health care system and the school system for juveniles in custody, earthquake preparedness, and the Board of Supervisors' procedures in granting county contracts.

The reports, on file in all public libraries, include 135 recommendations for improving government services.

Each new grand jury must monitor action on the previous jury's recommendations, most of which are directed to the county Board of Supervisors. Few recommendations are implemented immediately, and often by the time they are, their jury origin is forgotten.

For instance, although a recent jury study regarding freeway emergency phones for Orange County is being implemented, little or no mention is being made of all the research the grand jury did to instigate their consideration.

The effectiveness of the grand jury as watchdog over county and local governments may be manifested in ways more subtle than subsequent action on recommendations. The mere presence of the grand jury tends to keep government agencies and officials on their toes. Changes frequently occur while a grand jury study is under way that may preclude the need for a report. Thus, the jury has been effective, but there is no record of such an accomplishment.

Evidence of the jury's criminal work is also hard to come by. Grand juries in California get few criminal cases because of the 1978 California Supreme Court decision (Hawkins) that granted an indicted person the right to a preliminary hearing. The district attorney's office brought six criminal cases to last year's grand jury. If no indictment is issued, however, the public is never informed.

The jury is also responsible for monitoring conditions in the county's jails and witnesses can be subpoenaed behind closed doors in a search for evidence. Last year's panel played a key role in a criminal investigation involving a miscarriage of justice. The district attorney reopened a case involving a young man who was serving an 18-year prison term for participating in a beating and gang rape in 1981. By using the grand jury in the new investigation of the case, the district attorney was able to proceed without alerting the actual perpetrators of the crime. New evidence resulted in the indictments of six other men. The innocent man who was in prison is now free.

The overall quality of grand juries may vary from year to year depending on each juror's experience and skills. Every year, however, the Orange County Superior Court makes a diligent effort to recruit and screen qualified grand jurors. Unlike the old days when "blue ribbon" grand juries consisted of cronies of judges, juries now include people from many walks of life. This diversity enhances the ability of a jury to look at issues from different points of view.

It is true that rural, lightly populated California counties, such as Alpine, do have a problem finding 19 qualified people for grand jury every year. A few years ago in Alpine County, only seven of the 19 people summoned for the jury showed up to be impaneled.

In Orange County, one hundred or as many as two hundred people apply for grand jury duty every year. (Any citizen 18 years of age or older is eligible). More people do not apply either because they don't know about it or because they cannot afford to work three to five days a week for a year for just $25 a day.

Each new grand jury in the county receives a crash training course. The outgoing jury provides a two-day orientation program and sets up the first month's schedule when the new jury meets with various county government officials and bureaucrats to learn the operations of county government and tour government facilities.

Each juror receives a procedures manual, which has been compiled and updated by previous juries. Two organizations, the Grand Jurors Assn. and the Grand Jury Exchange Seminar, conduct in-service training for grand jurors. So, opportunities are there for grand jurors to become well-informed in a hurry.

Will Orange County continue to have grand juries that are effective watchdogs filling the check-and-balance void in local governments? The answer is yes, but with some "ifs":

If conscientious, civic-minded people who are quick learners are motivated to seek grand jury duty.

If egotistic individuals are screened out.

If those who have knowledge of waste, inefficiency or corruption in local government direct complaints to the grand jury.

If each jury panel resolves to be absolutely independent and objective.

Those are big "ifs," but the potential is there for the grand jury to help improve local government in Orange County.

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