The San Jose Mercury News reports (Sat. Oct. 9) that the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury indeed is investigating Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith’s office, focusing on how the Sheriff’s Office manages the county jails.
The investigation comes at the public request of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. A number of elected officials and community members have long criticized how the Sheriff’s Office manages the jails. We won’t get into that big issue here, though here is a link to a 2016 civil grand jury report that pointed to many of the still-ongoing issues at the county jails.
We will, however, note that the reported investigation – and the Board’s request that the civil grand jury investigate – highlights the importance of the civil grand jury as a local governmental watchdog.
Here is the Mercury News article.
Reporter Robert Salonga has written past articles on grand jury reports. His reporting shows lots of knowledge about the civil grand jury, an entity that – in our opinion – should have a higher profile.
The rules and nuances of the civil grand jury system intentionally keep its workings undercover – except for its final reports. All civil grand jury reports are public. By and large, the final reports are intended to be the only communication by the grand jury. All investigations, interviews, research, on-site visits must be, and are, kept confidential.
That’s why this situation is unusual. While the civil grand jury systems exists in part for this task, seldom do elected officials publicly call on the grand jury to investigate any governmental office or official. The Merc article attributes information in its story to “sources familiar with the process.”
To be sure, the civil grand jury cannot, and will not, acknowledge investigating the Sheriff’s Office. Nor will it acknowledge that it’s investigating any of the hundreds of governmental agencies in Santa Clara County that can be targets of grand jury investigations. But in this case, the request was public. So, news reporters had a head start. Salonga apparently learned the right day to head to the courthouse. As the news story states: “A reporter for this news organization visited a downtown San Jose courthouse that day and observed signs of civil grand jury proceedings … .”
Our organization of former civil grand jurors never has any idea what the sitting grand jurors are investigating. In this case, though, we know the civil grand jury faces a time crunch. As the article states, it’s far from certain the jurors can complete their investigation by the end of their term in mid-December. The next grand jury could take up the matter, but interviews would have to be redone.
By the time county supervisors made their request (they also requested investigations by two other outside agencies), the current grand jury was deep into an unknown number of investigations. As of Oct. 12, it had not yet posted a single completed report. That is not unusual. For most civil grand juries, the end-of-term deadline crunch is very real.