County jail consultants needed to go

The Justice Concepts jail consultants ought to consider themselves lucky that the Sedgwick County Commission decided to terminate their contract Wednesday. Given the Kansas City, Mo., firm's poor job performance, many people would wonder why commissioners didn't file suit and try to get some money back.

It's true that "failure is never trying," as County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer said before Wednesday's vote, recalling the noble goal behind the 2008 decision to hire the consultants for what was supposed to be 10 months and $124,000 — to stave off a $55 million-plus jail expansion.

But failure also can be continuing to try something that isn't working. And Justice Concepts' contract wasn't working. After months of excuses, the firm has yet to deliver some reports. The consultants' communications with staff and commissioners have been at best unprofessional and at worst "deceptive," to use Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw's word.

The last thing the firm deserved was what it sought this week — more time as well as the $46,000 it was still owed (it will get another $7,200 instead related to tasks already performed).

Not that county commissioners can take much pride in their belated unanimous stand against the consultants.

Eagle reporter Deb Gruver's many eye-opening articles on Justice Concepts — and reading between the lines of the county e-mails she obtained involving the firm — suggested that poor communication and strained relationships among county commissioners and staff only aggravated the situation.

That's especially frustrating because one means to the firm's contractual goal of reducing the Sedgwick County Jail's inmate population by 25 percent was supposed to be better cooperation among everyone involved in criminal justice.

The county so far has avoided the jail expansion through pretrial services and other collaborative efforts. Justice Concepts gets some measure of credit for the changes, though how much is debatable.

But the challenge continues.

The discussion of how to manage the jail population returns where it arguably belonged all along — with Hinshaw and the commission itself, aided by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

County leaders now should seek to fix the council's shortcomings — Welshimer called it a "good group with good intentions" but no leadership, authority or money — and continue to improve data sharing among the jail's stakeholders. As they do, they can count on the jail continuing to be, as Commission Chairman Karl Peterjohn so vividly put it Wednesday, the "large, unlanceable boil on the body politic" that it's been for the past two decades.

Meanwhile, the sorry tale of Justice Concepts now becomes a cautionary one for local governments, which often seem too quick to outsource work, tax dollars and accountability to consultants.