‘My proposal is that we not take a stance,’ board member says

[Source: “‘My proposal is that we not take a stance,’ board member says,” Press Citizen, 19 March 2013]

Iowa City’s Human Rights Commission will not take a stance against the proposed justice center.

One of the center’s opponents, University of Iowa history professor Jeff Cox, asked the commission at its Feb. 19 meeting to oppose the construction of a new jail. Cox addressed the disproportionate number of blacks incarcerated in the jail as well as arrest rates among UI students.

However, after discussing the pros and cons of the proposed facility for more than an hour during its meeting Tuesday night, a majority of the Human Rights Commission voted not to support or challenge the facility.

“I don’t believe it is our purview to vote on a county bond issue,” commission member Diane Finnerty said. “My proposal is that we not take a stance.”

However, Finnerty did suggest the commission should take a stance on the racial inequality and human rights issues at the jail, including a lack of space for programming for inmates.

Local residents are slated go to the polls May 7 to vote on a proposed $43.5 million bond referendum that would fund the 195-bed, four courtroom justice center. Justice center proponents say the center is necessary to address overcrowding at the Johnson County Jail, as well as space, safety and security issues at the more than a century old Johnson County Courthouse.

The proposed justice center also would have more space for jail diversion initiatives, such as mental health and education programs.

Opponents, however, argue that a larger facility would allow for local law enforcement agencies to arrest more people. Furthermore, they have expressed concerns about disproportionate minority contact within the entire local criminal justice system.

Justice center opponent Bob Thompson told the commission he wasn’t completely against the justice center, but he wanted to see more alternatives to incarceration.

“I’m not opposed to the justice center, per se, and a lot of us on the vote no side aren’t,” Thompson said. “What we want are alternatives.”

Board of Supervisors member Rod Sullivan and Dorothy Whiston and Jim McCarragher, who are on the county’s criminal justice coordinating committee, attended the meeting and spoke in favor of the facility.

McCarragher said the CJCC has identified numerous jail alternatives that can’t be implemented without additional space.

“You know what we’re talking about with space, it just isn’t there,” he said. “I get the feeling we’re being held hostage. You can’t do it now. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it tomorrow.”

Whiston said the conditions in the current jail — the lack of space, programming and housing some inmates outside of the county — equates to “human rights abuse.” She urged the commission to pressure Iowa City to participate in a study the county is exploring that would study disproportionate minority contact throughout the local criminal justice center and identify solutions to those issues.

Commission member Shams Ghoneim said she could not support the proposal not to take a stance on the justice center, citing the human rights concerns she has for those currently being housed in the Johnson County Jail.

“I think it’s important to address the issue of human rights violations we are currently witnessing,” she said.

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