Vote ‘no’ on justice center, but ‘yes’ for courthouse

[Source: “Vote ‘no’ on justice center, but ‘yes’ for courthouse,” Press Citizen, 11 April 2013, by Nicholas Johnson]

Note: This article is included here because it is part of a dialog about why there should be a unified courthouse and jail. Jim McCarragher has written a response to this article.

There’s a happy, win-win approach to Johnson County’s courts and jail needs well within reach. Sadly the county supervisors didn’t grab it.

So I’m voting “No” on the so-called “revised” proposal.

When this vote also fails, let’s do what almost everyone agrees on: fix the courthouse. Detach the jail from both the courthouse and the ballot proposition.

Here’s how.

• Reserve the courthouse for civil proceedings. Spiff it up. Accommodate ADA requirements and other needs. The courthouse and Old Capitol are Iowa City’s most prized architectural gems.

Relocating criminal proceedings will eliminate much of the courthouse overcrowding and security concerns, while providing additional offices and space for civil proceedings.

• Create a detached, stand-alone facility for criminal proceedings and jail cells. It would be much more efficient for those handling criminal cases.

There could be new courtrooms and chambers for judges; offices and rooms for clerks and records, assistant county attorneys, deputy sheriffs, inmates’ lawyers and families, training programs, as well as jail cells. They could be designed for optimum efficiency by those using them.

There would be little or no public objection to architectural design. Security could be built in, rather than reconfiguring the courthouse.

There would be no need to have this facility near the courthouse — or more than a half-mile away. It would be a one-stop shop; a stand-alone facility.

There is precedent for removing functions from the courthouse. Offices for all county departments used to be in the courthouse. They are now in a separate County Administration Building a few blocks away with convenient, free parking.

• There are reasons to preserve the integrity of the courthouse. The courthouse, like Old Capitol, is a valuable Iowa City asset. It is an attraction in an area the city wants to develop.

It may be “legal” to attach a modern architectural extension onto this 100-year-old U.S. Register of National Historic Places structure, but why would anyone want to do so? Would we put such an extension on Old Capitol? Of course not. We shouldn’t want to put one on the courthouse either. Old Capitol needs its Pentacrest; the courthouse needs its setting.

Do we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists? That appears to be a goal of the downtown merchants, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City Council and others.

That being the case, of all the options for housing, entertainment venues, and other attractions south of Burlington, why on earth would we plop jail cells for criminals right in the middle of downtown?

That’s nuts.

Particularly since we also despoil an architectural gem of a courthouse in the process — one that might otherwise actually be an attraction of sorts for those walking or otherwise enjoying the area.

Iowa City is not like Washington, where the best one can hope for is the least worst alternative. We don’t have to settle. We can be creative.

We can have it all: improve the courthouse’s interior while preserving its exterior and setting. Detach a justice center from the ballot and from the courthouse; create one more efficient and pleasant to work in than anything dreamed of so far.

On May 7, vote “no” on the unrevised proposal.

Then, later, let’s all vote “yes” for what we do agree on — a refurbished courthouse — and begin planning and then agreeing to vote “yes” on a criminal justice center that will bring deserved distinction to Johnson County.


Categories: Commentary, News Coverage


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  1. Single facility improves safety, security, space | Vote Yes for Johnson County Justice Center – Iowa City – Courthouse and Jail Revitalization - April 19, 2013

    […] Nicholas Johnson’s recent guest column claimed there’s a much easier, win-win option to the current proposal for a new Johnson County justice center on the ballot in May. […]

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