Talk centers on how center would affect diversion programs

[Source: “Talk centers on how center would affect diversion programs,” Press Citizen, 3 April 2013]

Johnson County’s case expediting program — which identifies jail inmates who can be safely released before their next court date — lowered the jail population by an average of 6.1 inmates per day in fiscal year 2012.

“We have staff meetings every week and reviewing everyone in jail and seeing who could be released early,” Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said. “That has been extremely successful.”

The county has 10 strategies currently in effect to expedite cases, reduce recidivism and lower the jail population. However, county officials said Wednesday night during a meeting of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and its Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee at the Johnson County Courthouse that the jail does not have adequate space to expand those programs or offer new initiatives to further curtail the jail population.

Lyness and jail alternatives coordinator Jessica Peckover have identified a number of strategies that could be implemented with more space that would be included in the proposed justice center. The vote on the $43.5 million bond referendum that would fund the justice center will be May 7.

Potential programs include the expansion of behavioral health services for those in need of mental health and substance abuse treatment, in-custody services, programs and classes. The justice center also would offer more space for inmates to meet with attorneys and visitors, an inmate library and adequate medical and recreation facilities.

“A lot of these programs currently occur in prison,” Lyness said. “We have no space to provide these services.”

After Lyness outlined the current and potential programs, the board of supervisors opened the forum to the approximately 30 people in attendance for the meeting.

Joe Johnston, a county resident for 60 years and lawyer for the past 45 years, said there was no question the county needs a new courthouse.

“The jail, however, is a different matter in my mind,” Johnston said.

Johnston expressed concerns that, “if you build it, they will come,” a common concern of justice center opponents. He said he is concerned that, with more jail beds, the county won’t work as hard to get the jail population down.

“Are jail beds just a solution not to have to deal with root causes of crime?” he said.

In response, Lyness reiterated that the county would expand jail diversion programs with a justice center, not eliminate them.

“The programs we have we think are good programs,” she said. “We don’t have any intentions of getting rid of them.”

Other speakers had suggestions for additional programs. Martha Hampel, who has opposed the justice center in the past, asked why a night court wouldn’t be possible.

Lyness said the courts are run and funded by the state and court hours are out of the county’s control.

Local attorney Jim McCarragher, a member of the coordinating committee, summed up the issues when he addressed the board.

“There’s no space,” he said. “If you come and visit the jail, come and visit the courthouse, you’d understand the space problems. Now is the time to do the right thing.”

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