1. Opinion

Editorial: Lives depend on updated jail records

Published Jul. 23, 2013

Kelly Harding was a career criminal who was neither a model citizen nor a model inmate. That does not excuse Harding's death in the Pinellas County Jail because of a paperwork error. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has been candid about the circumstances that led to Harding's being wrongly housed in a cell with a murder suspect who choked him. Now the sheriff needs to take additional steps to prevent such a fatal mistake.

Harding pleaded guilty in January to a misdemeanor charge of trespassing. Yet because of a disciplinary infraction, he was placed in the jail's Delta 6 pod for felons under protective custody. Harding never should have wound up in the same cell with Scott Greenberg, who was awaiting trial on a felony charge of second-degree murder in connection with the death of his girlfriend. While Harding originally had been charged with burglary, a felony, he had pleaded guilty to the reduced misdemeanor charge. Gualtieri said that change never made its way into the sheriff's inmate records section. If it had, Harding would not have been placed in the pod and would not have shared a cell with the man who killed him.

Gualtieri is investigating how the records mistake was made but told the Times editorial board Tuesday, "We own it, we accept responsibility." A good place to better ensure that prisoners are housed where they belong would be to more vigorously check whether an inmate faces misdemeanor or felony charges immediately upon his return to jail from a court appearance when a plea bargain might have been negotiated.

Two weeks ago, Gualtieri moved quickly to disclose details surrounding the life-threatening beating of a prisoner by another prisoner inside a transport van. The sheriff also deserves credit for posting all completed internal affairs reports online. Accepting responsibility when bad things happen and embracing transparency are positive attributes. The next challenge is to make cost-effective changes to increase the safety of inmates and reduce the possibility for another error that could be deadly.