Johnson County Justice Center Would Make More Room for Jail Diversion

[Source: “Johnson County Justice Center Would Make More Room for Jail Diversion,” GGAN-TV CBS 2 Iowa, 3 April 2013]

IOWA CITY, IA (CBS2/FOX28) — Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness read the list of charges for inmates in the Johnson County Jail on a given day, trying to make a point.

“Next one, robbery, first (degree). Next one, murder first (degree). Next one, burglary second (degree), theft second (degree), possession of drug paraphernalia, burglary second (degree),” Lyness said.

The people behind bars aren’t there for drunk driving and minor drugs charges; the jail is full of people convicted of serious crimes, Lyness said.

Still, people at the meeting were worried that wouldn’t continue to be the case if the new Justice Center is built.

“I was thinking the other day, it’s like ‘Field of Dreams’. ‘If you build it, they will come,'” said Joe Johnston, who said he supports a new courthouse, but not necessarily a bigger jail.

The goal of the meeting was to dispel those ideas. The county wants to keep people out of jail as much as possible, Lyness said, and does it through diversion and substance abuse programs. The county currently has nine different strategies in place that save people from serving time, and it is working: hundreds of people have successfully completed those jail diversion programs, Lyness said.

“It’s not just about saving money, it’s about doing the right thing, because it may be more expensive than maintaining someone in jail,” Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said.

And the county wants to add to those strategies with things like parenting classes and GED programs, but without extra space, that’s impossible.

“We could expand our mental health diversion program, we could expand our drug courts, we could expand our substance abuse prevention programming, we could do all kinds of things if we had more space,” County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said.

The county also wants to analyze racial disparities in the criminal justice system through a commissioned racial inequity study.

The disproportionate number of African Americans in the Johnson County Jail was a major complaint of critics of the Justice Center, and the county agreed the critique was fair. In Fiscal Year 2012, 57 percent of jail inmates were white and 42 percent were black. The county as a whole is 86 percent white and 26 percent black, according to the county Treatment and Alternatives Subcommittee.

Officials want to figure out what adjustments need to be made with law enforcement to reverse that trend, and hope the message will help change enough voters’ minds on the Justice Center.

The new project also comes with a reduced price tag; the last plan would have cost $46.8 million, and the new version sits at $43.5 million. That comes from a reduction in beds from 243 to 195, and a reduction in the number of courtrooms. The Board of Supervisors also contributed $1.3 million to the project.

The special election takes place on May 7, and early voting starts Wednesday, April 10.

See all the details of the new plan on the county’s website.

Wednesday, April 3 2013, 11:09 PM CDT

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