Matt Von Pinnon, Published August 29 2010
Von Pinnon: Public has right to know how jail funds are spentOccasionally, it’s a fine line between a person’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know.
Consider the following story that broke last week:
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney informed county commissioners that his department’s $300,000 annual allocation to pay for jail inmates’ medical bills would likely be exceeded by just one prisoner with a severe medical condition the county is required to treat so long as the inmate is in their care.
Laney said releasing the prisoner into the public was not an option because he’s considered dangerous, but paying for his medical treatments would severely tax the public coffers.
Laney and county officials said they couldn’t disclose the inmate’s name because, in doing so, it would violate his medical privacy.
That reasoning didn’t sit comfortably with us at The Forum, so on Wednesday we formally asked the county to publicly disclose the inmate’s name and his reasons for being jailed.
We specifically pointed out that we weren’t interested in knowing the inmate’s medical condition. We thought the public at least ought to know whose medical condition they were paying for, and here’s why:
Without public accountability for that medical line item in the county’s budget, there is no way to know what that money is ultimately being used for. We don’t suspect it’s being misused, mind you, but the public would never know if it was being misused without knowing who the money is being used for.
At least with a name, one can determine if that person is, in fact, an inmate, and for how long.
And there’s another bigger issue at stake for the public in all this.
Let’s suppose, for a moment, that someone was sick and had no way to pay for needed medical treatment.
Facing no other options, might they commit a crime that would either allow them to pay for their needed care or, if caught, would be paid for by taxpayers?
It might sound far-fetched, but there are many people who, when desperate, willingly get caught for petty crimes to get “three hots (meals) and a cot (a place to sleep).”
Sheriff Laney expects the North Dakota Legislature to perhaps address this quandary in its next session.
On Friday, Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick formally denied The Forum’s request for this inmate’s name, citing what he believes is the intent of North Dakota’s medical privacy laws.
The Forum will likely seek an opinion on the matter from State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, if for nothing else than to know where the state’s line is between a prisoner’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know.
Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579 or firstname.lastname@example.org