Iowa City Press-Citizen Endorses the Justice Center Bond Referendum

Iowa City Press-Citizen

July 14, 2012

Our View

Earlier this year, the Press-Citizen Editorial Board identified 10 issues to watch in 2012. Here is the fifth in a series of editorials analyzing how those issues look nearly six months later.

Building the case for a Justice Center

* What we said six months ago: “Johnson County officials have a difficult job ahead of them this year as they try to persuade a super-majority of voters to approve a proposed … bond referendum for a new Justice Center. The proposal to be brought to the voters this year is going to be very different from the jail expansion plan that voters overwhelmingly rejected more than a decade ago. This time, the Justice Center model will address overcrowding at the jail along with the safety and maintenance concerns with the county’s century-old county courthouse.

* What we say now: The Johnson County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the following language to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot: “Shall the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not exceeding the amount of $46,800,000 for the purpose of erecting and equipping a County Justice Center, to solve current safety, security and space needs of the Sheriff, jail and court operations, in a structure to be located adjacent to and incorporating the existing historic courthouse?”

We hope that more than 60 percent of Johnson County voters will recognize that the correct answer to this question is “yes.”

It’s true that the $46.8 million figure is significantly larger than the $39 million placeholder that county officials have bandied for the past decade — ever since county voters in 2000 came out and overwhelmingly turned down a bond request to build a new jail.

But that $39 million figure was based much older estimates. The new figure represents a more accurate account of what the new facility would need in order to improve safety, security and access.

We’ve already editorialized about the risks and financial costs Johnson County faces every day as the current 92-bed jail forces the county to farm out dozens and dozens of inmates to other counties. Not only does the county face the risk of accident or escape during all those driving hours, not only does the county have to employ more officers and guards to oversee those trips, but the rent alone paid to those other county jails already has topped $1 million.

And we’ve already editorialized about how Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and other county officials have been working for nearly a decade to increase the number of jail diversion programs. Contrary to popular belief, the numbers show the jail overcrowding is not being caused by arrests for public intoxication or small drug offense. The jail overcrowding is being caused by the continuing growth of Johnson County’s population, and the overcrowding is being worsened by a growing number of inmates whom the courts consider a flight risk and whom have to be held for longer periods of time before trial because of state cutbacks to the court system.

We haven’t editorialized as much, however, about the challenges and risks that come with continuing to use a century-old county courthouse — a facility constructed when the population was much smaller, when there wasn’t consideration made for people with disabilities and when there wasn’t the same level of security concern as today.

With inmates having to use the same entry ways, stairways and elevators as everyone else in the courthouse — from court employees, to people coming to pay traffic fines, to families coming to finalize an adoption — the situation does seem like a crisis just waiting to happen.

We’ve long said that status quo is no longer an option for the jail. And it’s no longer an option for the courthouse either.

The design approved by the Criminal Justice Committee is practical. And the new Justice Center not only would make better use of the century-old courthouse, but it also will increase security, safety, accessibility and efficiency.

Given that versions of the project have been in the discussion phase for the past 12 years, we think it’s a near historic event that county officials finally reached an agreement.

And we hope our fellow voters will make history on Nov. 6 as well.


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