Battling misconceptions: Who’s in the jail?

October 5, 2012
Iowa City Press-Citizen [source]
By Lee Hermiston

Donald Baxter doesn’t want to be the voice of opposition to the proposed Johnson County Justice Center.

He has a fulltime job, family and other things that keep him busy. But, because no one else has stepped up, Baxter has taken on the responsibility of questioning the county’s need for a new $48.1 million justice center.

“I’m speaking out against this because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t,” Baxter said this week.

Baxter, a former marketing professional for a company that designed prisons and jails, said he believes the United States is engaging in “mass incarceration,” and Johnson County is not immune to that trend. Furthermore, he said if voters approve the Nov. 6 bond referendum to build the justice center, the county will have carte blanche to fill a 243-bed jail with the type of inmates Baxter says the county already is holding in the current 92-bed jail — low-level offenders and those without the means to post bail.

“They’re going to jail for drug crimes … public intoxication,” Baxter said. “There are very few hardened criminals who wind up in the Johnson County Jail. I would categorize the jail population as largely people who have been arrested for petty offenses that cannot afford to bail out or people who represent a severe risk to public safety.”

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said Baxter is about half right — a majority of the people who are in jail for more than a few days are a risk to society – including suspected murders, drug dealers, sex offenders or others accused of committing violent acts – or those who who are flight risks or simply unable to follow society’s rules.

As for everyone else?

“I think people still believe the jail is full of drunk college kids and I think people still believe there are people charged with minor drug offenses that are plugging up the jail,” Pulkrabek said. “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but it’s simply not true.”

With the county spending more than $1 million a year to house its overflow inmates out of county, Pulkrabek and others see the justice center, which also would include new offices for the sheriff’s department and clerk of court, as well as six new courtrooms, as a solution to the jail’s crowding issue. In addition, it would solve safety, security and space issues at the 111-year-old courthouse, proponents say.

But, Pulkrabek recognizes he has to convince some voters that the jail is not full of low-level offenders and educate voters about the multitude of diversion programs that have been put in place to help lower the jail population.

“It’s an uphill battle whenever you’re trying to build a jail,” he said. “Some people are just focusing on the fact that this is a jail; and it’s a justice center we’re building. It’s really about safety and security.”

‘Some people are just going break laws’

The reason the Johnson County Jail has become so crowded is fairly simple, Pulkrabek said — the county’s population has outgrown the current facility.

When the jail was built in 1981, the county’s population was about 82,000. By the 1990s, the population topped 95,000, and the jail began to double bunk some cells. As of 2000, all of the cells were double bunked, creating space for 92 inmates, and the county’s population topped 110,000. In July 2011, the county’s population was more than 133,000.

“It’s not that we’re arresting more people,” Pulkrabek said. “It’s just that the population has grown and you’re always going to have a certain segment of problems in your population .… Some people are just going to break laws, that’s just the way it is.”

Because of the ever-changing jail population, the question of who is in the jail is “an impossible question to answer,” Pulkrabek said. However, John Neff, a professor emeritus in the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy, has studied the topic at length.

According to Neff’s research, 5,084 people were booked in the jail in fiscal year 2011. Of those, 38.8 percent, or 1,972 people, were released on their own recognizance, 30.1 percent (1,530 people) were released on bond, 21.6 percent (1,098 people) were released after pleading guilty and 17.5 percent (890 people) were released after serving their sentence.

Those numbers total more than 100 percent because some individuals were booked and released more than once, Neff said.

Furthermore, 60 percent of those booked (3,050 people) were released within 24 hours, many within 90 minutes of being booked. Nineteen percent of the inmates (966) spent up to a week in jail and 16 percent (813) were held between a week and a month. Only 5 percent of the inmates (254) stayed more than a month and up to a year.

Neff also tracked the inmates by the level of offenses they were charged with in relation to the length of their stay. Of those incarcerated for less than a week, 1,276 were charged with simple misdemeanors and 2,280 were charged with aggravated or serious misdemeanors. Only 306 people charged with felonies stayed in the jail for less than a wee​

Among those who stayed for longer than a week, 523 were charged with aggravated or serious misdemeanors and only 39 were charged with simple misdemeanors, such as public intoxication or interference with official acts. The number who stayed longer than a week and were charged with felonies was 424 — more than half of whom were charged with felonies categorized as causing harm to other people.

“Basically, the people that are here for longer times are people that are charged with serious offenses and are being held on bond because they’re a danger to society or others or a danger to flee,” Pulkrabek said, noting probation violators and those serving sentences also make up a portion of the jail population.

Pulkrabek said those serving a sentence handed down by the courts are housed in county.

“I really didn’t want to house any sentenced people out of county because I feel very strongly that it should not cost the taxpayers money to ship people out of county so that a taxpayer is paying to have someone serve their debt to society,” he said.

‘We clearly just had no space’

When voters were asked to approve funding for a new jail in 2000, Rod Sullivan, who was not a member of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors at the time, was among those opposed to the project. Today, he counts himself among the proposed justice center’s supporters.

“Even in 2000, I recognized the overcrowding was a huge problem,” Sullivan said this week. “I didn’t think they had done everything they could do, and I didn’t think they had a good plan.

“They weren’t doing anything in terms of jail alternatives,” Sullivan said.

Since 2000, the county has implemented an assortment of diversion programs to keep the jail population as low as possible.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said an attorney in her office works with jail staff, the county’s jail alternatives coordinator Jessica Peckover, attorney Tom Woods of the public defender’s office and staff from the Iowa Department of Corrections to try to get those not facing serious offenses out of jail earlier.

“They meet and review everyone who’s in the jail, pretrial, to see if we can get them out of jail safely,” Lyness said.

Peckover said inmates often are referred to her by jail staff or by judges and attorneys. Referrals are then screened for mental health or substance abuse disorders and, when applicable, are transferred out of the jail and into treatment.

“Our primary goal is to get you out and into services,” Peckover said.

Since starting the program in August 2011, Lyness said it has been highly successful. She points to the average daily jail population, which was 158 in fiscal year 2009-2010, but increased to 161.4 in fiscal year 2010-2011. One year after implementing the jail alternative program, the average daily jail population dropped to 154.6, Lyness said.

Another is the marijuana diversion program, which was implemented about two years ago for people charged with possession of marijuana. The program requires a person to have no previous criminal history and found to be in possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana. If a person qualifies and completes the program, which includes a six-hour substance abuse class, the charge is dismissed.

The alternative is likely receiving a deferred judgment and paying court fees, fines and other costs.

“We find most people that have deferred judgments don’t pay the civil penalty, court costs, don’t turn in proof of a substance abuse evaluation,” Lyness said. “They don’t follow through with things. Then what happens is we revoke their probation, they come in and have to serve two days in jail.”

For three and a half years, the county attorney’s office also has used what staff calls the rocket docket program to help those with suspended licenses get on a payment plan and get their licenses back. This helps the person avoid owing more money or spending more time in jail for driving with a suspended license.

The sheriff’s office also works with MECCA to ensure that those required to get a substance abuse evaluation as a condition of their release actually be evaluated before leaving the jail, instead of being arrested again for not following court orders.

“This program with MECCA doing the substance abuse assessments on indigent people prior to them leaving the jail eliminated virtually all of that,” Pulkrabek said.

Space issues at both the jail and the courthouse limit the effectiveness and availability of these programs, however. Lyness said the courthouse lacks meeting space to host the diversion programs, such as the drug court and rocket docket. At the jail, substance abuse evaluations are conducted in a tiny exercise room.

Pulkrabek said early on his in first term as sheriff, he tried to implement a life skills class that would help inmates learn how to balance a checkbook, write a resume or fill out a job application.

“But what we ran into is anything you create that takes longer than a week or two to get through was impossible to run because nobody was here longer than a week because we’d ship them out to another county,” he said. “The other thing was we clearly just had no space.”

Lyness and Pulkrabek said the proposed justice center would have meeting space for current and additional diversion programs. Peckover said that would increase the effectiveness of her program and other jail diversion initiatives.

“We’d have more opportunities to do things with individuals while they’re in jail,” she said. “We’d have better access to them without trying to get them from Washington County or some other county. I think we’d be able to get people out of jail quicker. For those who are eligible, we could address treatment needs while they’re in jail so they’re better prepared when they return to the community .… If we could do all those things, we’d decrease recidivism. Of course, you’re going to see a reduction in the population of the jail.”

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