Guest Opinion published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 1, 2012
The $46.8 million bond issue on the Nov. 6 ballot in Johnson County is a public safety issue. It proposes a secure Justice Center combining the sheriff’s office, jail and court-related offices, all attached to the existing Johnson County Courthouse.
Our historic courthouse and jail are outdated to the extent they represent a threat to public safety, security, access to justice, and the ability to provide services to meet current needs of Johnson County citizens.
The courthouse was built more than a century ago (1901) to serve a very different and significantly smaller population. (According to data from Auditor’s Office staff, 1900 census recorded Johnson County’s population at just 24,817, and even the 1980 county census was only 81,717. That compares to 130,882 in the 2010 census.)
The present county jail was opened more recently (1981) but is similarly outdated and out of compliance with state and federal regulations.
The most obvious courthouse security issues include:
• No secure entrance checkpoint to protect against anyone attempting to enter with weapons.
• No separate and secure entrance for deputies escorting criminal suspects.
• And no way to separate inmates from general public, jurors, employees, judges and others.
The most obvious safety issues include:
• Hallways and back stairs too narrow to be safe in emergencies.
• No automated sprinkler system.
• And only one entrance/exit accessible for disabled persons.
The courthouse also suffers from space issues that delay justice and increase costs in the judicial process.
Courtrooms are too small, too few and lack necessary technology. Also lacking are private meeting rooms, leaving narrow hallways as the only locations for mediation and lawyer-client conferences. Rooms are lacking for multiple jury deliberations, and there’s insufficient space for staff and files in county attorney and clerk of court offices.
The Johnson County Jail has totally different, but equally important, safety and security issues. Currently separated from the courthouse, it was built for an inmate capacity of 46, and later modified to accommodate 92. Yet the present average daily number of inmates ranges from 150 and 190.
That costs Johnson County taxpayers more than $1 million a year to house overflow inmates in jails in other counties. Crowded conditions, daily movement of inmates to and from the jail, and other deficiencies all increase risk of potential harm for public and law enforcement officers.
The proposed Justice Center is designed to resolve those critical safety, security and space problems. Each day that passes without addressing these problems negatively impacts our community by:
• Continuing to spend about $3,500 a day ($1.3 million a year) out of our county to accommodate inmate overflow.
• Risking public safety for our community, particularly personnel and public involved within Johnson County’s justice system.
• Missing a financial opportunity to take advantage of all-time low interest rates and delaying establishing equity in our county-owned building, rather than spending our tax dollars in other counties.
Safety and security are increasingly critical concerns in today’s society.
Residents of Johnson County need to be assured that when they utilize our courthouse — whether for a traffic violation, business matter, serving as a juror, or as an employee — they can do so in a secure and safe facility.
Our citizens also deserve a courthouse that is structurally sound, able to meet special needs requirements and has adequate space to provide the services our community expects.
And, of course, we need a jail facility that meets federal and state requirements, while putting an end to streaming tax dollars from our community to other counties.
This is the right time to do the right thing.
Local attorney Jim McCarragher was a member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.