Johnson County justice center still divisive

[Source: “Johnson County justice center still divisive,” The Daily Iowan, 24 April 2013]

Opponents of the proposed Johnson County Justice Center say the revised cost is still too high, and that changes made to the plan are insufficient.

“This is a nominal reduction, and they have essentially thrown a bone to the public,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy, a local activist. “[Proponents] don’t know what causes these rates, and they think by throwing some money, they hope it will make it better.”

The concerned community members met at the hotel Vetro Tuesday evening for a panel discussion about their qualms with the revised justice center plan.

The original proposal for the center received 56 percent of the vote in November 2012, failing to pass the 60 percent threshold necessary. Following the vote, the county agreed to a new plan, which trimmed $3.3 million off the bond referendum.

Specifically, the amended proposal includes 195 jail beds instead of 243, four courtrooms instead of six, and $325,000 less in exterior design changes and other “soft” costs, coupled with $2.7 million in county funding.

Despite the changes, critics of the proposal believe the main problems they have described all along remain.

Gurtovoy said people who are opposed to the proposal for cost reasons are not satisfied, and neither are those who oppose the center for additional reasons, including racial disparities in jailing.

“The sheriff and other county officials went on the record just minutes after the proposal failed in November and said they were going to bring it back again,” Gurtovoy said.  “They are trying to convince us they were right all along.”

Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney said the Board of Supervisors continues to look at jail alternatives and encourages officers to be “as lenient as possible.”

He said the opponents had the chance to get involved in the discussion of racial disparities and other issues a long time ago, but did not. He also said he thinks they are blaming supervisors for overarching societal issues outside of the supervisors’ jurisdiction.

“The Board of Supervisors handles facilities … so those changes are above us,” he said.

Gurtovoy said he believes more voters who oppose the proposal will come out to the polls on May 7, but both he and Harney said the overall special election turnout will most likely be lower than the general election in November.

Gurtovoy said the grass-roots efforts should help the opponents overcome the smaller numbers.

“It’s hard to get people to get out a vote for the jail unless they have a personal connection,” Harney said. “People care about the jail when they have been affected by a crime or on jury duty. Otherwise, it’s more difficult.”

University of Iowa history Professor Jeff Cox said his biggest concern continues to be what he believes is a racially disproportionate number of minorities being arrested, which to some extent is a local problem.

“We have a slope of arrests and an even steeper slope of drug arrests, and we have got to turn it around,” he said. “If we build a bigger jail, that conversation is not going to happen.”

One official who works at the Johnson County Jail spoke about the conditions there during the question section. While he admitted he didn’t really have a question, he believes the panelists were ignoring the current conditions at the facility.

“You don’t take into consideration the living conditions in the jail,” Deputy Sheriff Brent Buszka told the panelists.  “Yes we can clean it and mop it … and do the best we can with what we got, but it’s substandard for the people who live there.”

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