County may study minorities in justice system

[Source: “County may study minorities in justice system,” Press Citizen, 6 March 2013]

Johnson County will explore hiring a firm to take a “systemic” look at disproportionate minority contact across the criminal justice system in the county.

Board of Supervisors member Rod Sullivan said during a meeting of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee that he would explore the costs and other details associated with hiring a firm. The move came after committee member Dorothy Whiston said the Iowa City Human Rights Commission had a proposal in front of them asking the commission to take a stance against the proposed $43.5 million justice center bond referendum.

Opponents of the proposed facility — which would house jail beds, courtrooms, the sheriff’s office and space for jail diversion programs — point to disproportionate minority contact as one reason to oppose the justice center. While not voicing her opinion on the validity of those concerns, Whiston said not acting on the proposal before the Human Rights Commission could be disastrous for the justice center supporters.

“I think unless we take a fairly substantial and affirmative and real step toward looking at this issue systemically and with some outcome proposed, we’re going to end up down the same road we were the last time this was proposed,” Whiston said.

The county took a slightly more expensive bond referendum to voters in November. Needing a super majority of 60 percent, the referendum narrowly failed. Now the county is trying to bring the justice center back to voters on May 7. County officials have attempted to address concerns about the facility by agreeing to build only 195 beds, four new courtrooms instead of the six that originally were proposed and redesigning the building’s facade. Room will be left in the facility to expand the number of beds and number of courtrooms.

Whiston said other communities have done analyses of “racial equity outcomes.” The process involves gathering data — such as arrests, sentences and other information — from police, the county attorney and other appropriate agencies and looking at where changes can be made. That data would continue to be collected as the changes were implemented to measure the impact.

The hang-up is that the county cannot compel Iowa City, Coralville or the University of Iowa to participate in the research, thereby limiting is potential impact.

“It sounds like it would be something that would be more effective if you had a buy-in from the whole region,” Sullivan said.

Whiston said that, if approved, the project would take a year to complete. However, she said that if voters knew the county was taking the lead on such a project, it could sway their opinions.

Board of Supervisors chairwoman Janelle Rettig asked members of the criminal justice coordinating committee if they should consider pushing back the May 7 special election given the dismal turnout of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors special election. About 6,100 votes were cast in the contest won by Republican John Etheredge, who ran on a platform of opposition to the justice center.

“It has nothing to do with the outcome of yesterday’s election, it has to do with the turnout, and it caused me to wonder if a May election is worthwhile,” Rettig said. “We can push, full throttle, to a May election and have nobody show up and vote.”

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness attributed some of the low turnout to Tuesday’s snowstorm. Other members of the committee said they were opposed to pushing back the date and the election date was not moved.

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