Press Citizen – Our View: Justice Center is the best solution to jail, courthouse woes

[Source: Iowa City Press Citizen, 24 October 2012]

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors 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 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 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.

  • Johnson County faces significant risks and financial costs 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 annually.
  • Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and other county officials have been working for at least the past eight years to increase the number of jail diversion programs.

Contrary to popular belief, the jail overcrowding is being caused primarily by the continuing growth of Johnson County’s population. The overcrowding is being worsened, however, by a growing number of inmates whom the courts consider a flight risk and who have to be held for longer periods of time before trial because of state cutbacks to the court system.

  • The 243-capacity figure for the new jail is a number in keeping with the growth needs of the county over the next few decades. Based on the growth rate computed from more than a century of jail statistics, the average jail population in 2032 is estimated to be about about 250. That number was reduced to 243 by the architects during the design stage.

Given that no one wants to have go through this process again in the next 30 years, we agree with the plan to build a jail now — with the current low interest rates and 2012 construction costs — that is designed with the future in mind.

  • But the jail is only one side of the equation. There also are 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.

Status quo is no longer an option for either the jail or the courthouse.

  • 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 and accessibility.

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

And we hope our fellow voters will make history as well by flipping their ballots and voting “yes.”

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