Addressing Myths about the Justice Center – Responding to the Daily Iowan Article, “Johnson County justice-center plans draw community scrutiny”

Source: “Johnson County justice-center plans draw community scrutiny,” Daily Iowan, 4 April 2013]

Note: Fact boxes have been inserted to correct inaccuracies or misconceptions in the story below.

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Johnson County justice-center plans draw community scrutiny

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | APRIL 04, 2013 5:00 AM

It was originally billed as a casual Wednesday afternoon input meeting by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

20130404th-justicecenter-costBut as plans regarding a new justice center and crime prevention efforts came up, discussions quickly steered into back-and-forth debates centered on current county inmates and the need for $46.2 million of new judicial investment.

County officials said the current number of available beds is so limited that many inmates have to be sent nearly an hour away to Muscatine County. In addition, the current courthouse does not comply with modern safety and security standards. They noted that dental and medical care, recreational opportunities, expanded visitation space, and a library are among the necessary additions.

Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness said the current crime prevention and outreach programs have helped curb some repeat offenders, but she stressed the importance of new facilities to accommodate a growing local population.

She said a number of current inmates include accused killers, robbers, and homicidal individuals, attacking the notion that the jail is only a holding ground for rowdy college students.

“We are not housing for the people that are there drinking a little too much downtown or getting drunk at football games or college kids smoking a little bit of marijuana,” Lyness said. “It is people that are committing dangerous crimes and cannot comply with society.”

The University of Iowa Student Government withdrew its support for the justice center last week, after voting in favor of supporting the slightly larger and more expensive plan earlier this academic year.

20130404th-justice-center-supportingThe original plan was put to a county vote on Nov. 6, 2012,but the proposal did not receive the 60 percent majority needed to pass — it received 56 percent.

Iowa City attorney and former Iowa legislative representative Joe Johnston said the need for a new courthouse is evident, but he skeptical that building a new jail would attack area crime at its roots.

He suggested moving forward with plans for a new courthouse and waiting for the community to become advocates of additional jail space. He compared the new jail to the tagline of the 1989 movie The Field of Dreams: “If you build it, [they] will come.”

20130404th-filling-jails-myth

“Building a jail that simply houses more people is making it easier for our judges to send people to jail,” he said. “This community has grown substantially, but if you do the numbers, I don’t think it has grown that substantially that we need 200 beds. Rent [minor offenders] a hotel room. It would be cheaper than building them a jail.”

Iowa City resident Jim McCarragher said after practicing law for nearly 50 years, he has witnessed the need for additional judicial space develop, despite what he called “progressive” jail alternative options.

“There’s no space,” he said. “If you come visit the jail and come visit the Courthouse, you will understand the problems we have. We have a growing population of people here, and it is going to continue to grow exponentially. Now is the right time to do the right thing.”

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said the size of the proposed justice center is “data-driven” and echoed the thoughts of Lyness on the idea that the current jail is not a so-called “drunk tank” for local college students.

“It’s an urban myth,” he said. “A very small percentage of students actually get arrested. From 2010-2012, those PAULA tickets went down 46 percent.”

Johnson County Board of Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said with the looming May 7 bond referendum date, action will need to be taken.

“Obviously, if you participate in a vote or not, we’ve got a lot of decisions to make,” he said. “Either preparing for a new facility or figuring out what to do next.”

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