Official: More space would decrease recidivism


County manages ‘revolving door’ of re-offending
October 5, 2012
Iowa City Press-Citizen [source]
By Tarra Bannow

There’s a familiar “slippery slope down” that Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said tends land people in jail over and over again.

Often, it begins with a minor charge — possession of marijuana, for example. A person then doesn’t pay his or her fine or turn in the required substance abuse evaluation, which causes him or her to be rearrested.

“They don’t follow through with things,” she said. “… It’s kind of like we continue that cycle and they lose their license, so then they get a driving under a suspended license.”

These people are among the Johnson County Jail’s recidivist population, offenders who continue to be rearrested for minor infractions. Those who work the closest with the county’s criminal justice system say these repeat offenders take up the majority of the jail’s bed space over time and are responsible for the jail’s overflowing population.

In 2011, about 20 percent of inmates held longer than one week took up about 90 percent of beds at the jail, said John Neff, a University of Iowa professor emeritus who has spent years studying the local jail population.

The existing jail has 92 beds, but over the years, there’s been a disproportionately high increase in inmates relative to the county’s population growth, Neff said. Between 1992 and 2011, the county’s population has increased 135 percent, while the jail population increased 268 percent. As a result, Johnson County has spent more than $7.5 million since fiscal year 2005 to house inmates at jails in other counties.

County officials have taken a number of steps toward learning about the recidivist population and attempting to reduce its effect on jail crowding. Neff and others within the county’s criminal justice system say repeat offenders should be central to the conversation ahead of the Nov. 6 public vote on a $46.8 million bond to fund a Johnson County Justice Center, which would replace the overpopulated jail and aging courthouse.

“The revolving door effect is real,” Neff said.

Society’s largest mental health care providers

Since the 1980s, policymakers and mental health advocates have led an ongoing push to stop housing the nation’s mentally ill individuals in large residential mental health care institutions in favor of smaller, community-based settings.

“What has happened is the large institutions are still there, they’re just jails and prisons,” Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said. “That is a huge issue.”

In Johnson County, the jail is the No. 1 provider of mental health services, Pulkrabek said. That might sound alarming, he said, but it’s no different from elsewhere in the state or country.

Every time a person is booked into the jail, they complete a medical history questionnaire. It asks what medications they’re taking, details on their mental and physical health conditions and other issues that could provide insight on what may have contributed to their crimes.

A copy of each questionnaire is submitted to Jessica Peckover, Johnson County’s jail alternatives coordinator. Peckover is one of a two-person staff whose job is to decide whether a person can be released from jail and instead be referred to mental health or substance abuse treatment programs.

Peckover said her primary goal is to get people out of jail and into programs that will help solve the underlying issues that landed them there in the first place. If a person has committed a violent crime or for whatever reason can’t be released, she works to get them into treatment while they’re in jail — but that’s not easy given lack of space at the current jail to host such programming.

“The idea is if they could be better served by addressing their clinical needs and mental health or substance abuse disorder, we can address that and get them out,” she said, “and the likelihood of them returning would be decreased.”

The psychiatrist is booked

Some local psychiatrists say the logjam of mental health services locally has contributed to the increased jail population.

The wait to get an appointment at the Community Mental Health Center, which receives public funding and provides services on a sliding scale fee, is about a month, said D. Lowell Yoder, assistant director of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ Department of Social Service. To see a psychiatrist at UI, the wait is even longer. That means people with acute psychiatric issues often end up in either the emergency room or in jail, he said.

“We know when people are psychotic in the community they’re going to do things that end them up in trouble with the law,” Yoder said. “Whether their judgment is impaired and they’re going to be intrusive, … it can be all sorts of trouble they’ll get into, and it’s really an illness issue that could be managed with good care. Unfortunately, often, that care isn’t available. It impacts law enforcement, it impacts the correctional system, when it’s really mental illness.”

UIHC’s inpatient psychiatric unit always is nearly at 100 percent capacity, so people often wait in the ER for psychiatric beds or are sent elsewhere in the state for care, Yoder said.

The ER at UIHC has felt that crunch in a big way. Last year, about 400 people came into the ER each month, up from about 180 per month four years ago, UIHC psychiatrist Jodi Tate said.

“It’s kind of in a crisis in terms of psychiatric services for individuals, whether they’re in the jail diversion program or not,” she said. “That affects everyone. We don’t have the answers to a lot of these things because we’re busting out of our seams.”

Often, those with mental health issues also are battling substance abuse, making treatment even more challenging. It’s generally faster to get an appointment to see a substance abuse counselor than to get one with a psychiatrist, but few people are willing to refer themselves to substance abuse treatment, Tate said.

People also tend to be more willing to seek treatment for mental health disorders over substance abuse because there’s a greater stigma surrounding substance abuse, Peckover said.

The same difficulty in accessing care is true for people who are released from jail and need psychiatric care, Peckover said. If the wait to see a psychiatrist is four months, their symptoms aren’t going to be managed with the appropriate medications and they’re likely to destabilize, she said.

“They’re going to be on the ped mall. If they’re bipolar, having a manic episode, they’re going to pick up things like disorderly conduct because they look out of control and disruptive,” she said.

People who simply cannot follow society’s rules’

But not everyone in the jail fits the mold of having a mental illness or substance abuse disorder.

Another portion of the jail population can be classified as people who simply refuse to give in to authority, said John Stratton, a UI professor emeritus and member of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which has been planning the proposed justice center. They don’t pay fines, they mouth off to police and they are rearrested, he said.

“It’s a revolving door for them,” Stratton said. “The question then gets raised: Do we ritualistically need to continue this, or is there some way we can break the cycle?”

The inmate population that stays longer than a week includes people serving sentences, those awaiting trial but being held because they’re a danger to society or pose flight risks, and repeat probation violators, Pulkrabek said.

“We’re talking about people who simply cannot follow society’s rules and will not, and have had multiple opportunities to follow the rules and won’t or can’t,” he said.

Most people who’ve tried to quit smoking or lose weight have similar experience with relapses, Neff said.

“But when it comes to drug and alcohol, relapses are not acceptable,” he said. “We have to punish them. I don’t quite understand why that is.”

In Johnson County, for example, judges routinely sentence those arrested for their third or subsequent public intoxication offense to 30 days in jail.

Those are people who likely are “beyond help,” Pulkrabek said. They’ve been in and out of the system, he said, and keeping them in jail for 30 days will prevent them from being re-arrested during that time.

“Someone who is that chronic, it does them good to be off alcohol for 30 days,” Pulkrabek said.

Neff said he disagrees with routine monthlong sentences, and said that if those repeat offenders must be put in jail, a week makes more sense than a month. It’s not as though the jail time will rehabilitate those offenders, nor will it likely cause them to regret their crime, he said.

“They don’t give a damn,” he said. “There’s really no retribution.”

More space, more help

When Peckover meets with inmates to discuss getting them out of the jail and into services, they often meet in the jail’s exercise room because it’s the only space available.

Peckover said she has no doubt that more room for programming, which the proposed justice center would provide, ultimately would decrease the county’s recidivist population and, in turn, reduce the overall jail population.

In addition to the lack of space for programming is the fact that so many Johnson County inmates are housed at jails in other counties, Lyness said.

“To really have programs, we have to have the inmates here to make it really feasible,” she said.

Peckover said jails in other counties host GED courses, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, faith gatherings and basic life skills courses, such as how to get a job or monitor finances. With a new justice center, all of those things could happen here, she said.

“We don’t want people to just be warehoused,” Peckover said. “We don’t want to just throw them in there and just say, ‘You’ve been naughty, do your time.’ We want you to leave with something better than you came in with.”

Reach Tara Bannow at or 887-5418.


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