[Source: “Johnson County Residents All Agree, So Why Not Move Forward?,” Press Citizen, 25 April 2013, by Scott McKeag. See also, Daily Iowan, 25 April 2013.]
I spent my entire undergraduate career at the University of Iowa opposing the idea of a new jail.
I had heard the opposition’s points, read their amusing flyers and took their word for it, knowing that our country has a historical track record of inequities in its justice system. I would have voted “no” to any proposal put in front of me up until two years ago.
At that time I was working with area high school students in how to use local research tools as they worked on civics projects of their own, and I began to see the data for myself. I began paying more attention during my visits to the aging Courthouse, however infrequent.
Almost accidentally, I began to think for myself. I remember thinking about how and where I would want my tax dollars spent, and about how important it is to ensure we aren’t depriving civil liberties and rights for the accused and incarcerated.
I also recognized the importance of empathy and the promise for a better future for those historically on the wrong end of society’s prejudices. Eventually I had the courage to admit to myself and others that building a large enough jail to meet the current and projected needs of the County did not conflict with my desire to see better race and socio-economic relations in our county, state, and nation.
More important, I realized I could best oppose the misguided “War on Drugs” by demonstrating that lobbying my state and federal representatives is more appropriate and effective on these larger issues, rather than protest voting against my own best interests as a county resident.
Last November I supported the Justice Center and I support it now, because I recognize that our jail isn’t full of recreational drug users and “newly drunk” to “sobering up” students. In fact, an April 8th report showed that of the 125 individuals in our jail at that time (which is 79 more than the original capacity of our 1981 jail); zero persons were in for only having marijuana or only having too much to drink over the weekend. Those 125 were there because the laws above the County level said they had to be.
I support the Justice Center because you cannot have the most progressive jail diversion and treatment programs in the state if you are forced to use a hallway as a meeting area. I support the Justice Center because our hard working county employees shouldn’t have to risk breathing in mold spores and falling down 100 year-old stairs to file my paperwork in a room that is out of space.
I support the Justice Center because we need to have adequate facilities to ensure those who are legally mandated to stay in jail don’t have to do so in other counties. There is no ability to provide the necessary attention and services guaranteed to all defendants, Sheriff’s deputies’ time is wasted on transport, and we are sending over a million dollars per year to those counties, to boot.
The new and extra bed space in a modern jail absolutely has to be a part of an effective and efficient Justice Center that this county is long overdue building for itself. Like most of us, I don’t like the reality that we need more jail space but I acknowledge that society and laws have changed since the 1980s. I also don’t like getting up earlier in the morning to brew my own coffee, even though at the end of the day it’s cheaper and healthier for me than overpaying for something I can have better in my own kitchen.
And after observing the “No” campaign’s biggest voices making public comments saying they, in fact, do support the building of a Justice Center, it becomes clear that we all agree the Justice Center has to be part of a larger solution. Their issue is with the increased capacity of the proposed jail, which itself accounts for only about one-third of the project’s total cost.
A No vote will only serve to make this problem bigger and more expensive down the road for current and future tax payers. There is something in this proposal for everyone, and current city and county leadership has even begun to explore deeper societal structures to continue its efforts to engage both the public at-large and the opponents of the Justice Center.
So let’s fight the state and federal battles together tomorrow. It’s time to stand for Johnson County today. Vote Yes on or before May 7th.
Scott M. McKeag