Gazette Supports Justice Center

[Source: “New Vote,” Gazette Editorial Board, 28 April 2013]

Just a few months after Johnson County voters declined to approve a bond to build a new justice center, the issue is back on the ballot for May 7.

Although the proposal has changed slightly in response to critics’ concerns about size, cost and design, our position remains the same: Voters should approve this much-needed jail and courthouse expansion.

The current facilities continue to be inadequate in terms of space, security, efficiency and accessibility. The county continues to waste money and staff time to warehouse jail inmates in other counties’ jails. Court proceedings continue to be unduly delayed because there are too few courtrooms to handle the county caseload. None of those fundamental issues has changed.

What we hope has changed is more voters’ understanding of what’s at stake if they continue to deny the Board of Supervisors the means with which to address these growing concerns.

After last fall’s narrow defeat, project supporters went back to the drawing board. The new proposal — a $43.5 million bond to fund a $46.2 million facility — would include fewer finished courtrooms and jail beds, with room to expand for both.

The scaled-down proposal maintains the project’s integrity while effectively addressing many critics’ concerns.

OBJECTIONS

Opponents of the Johnson County Justice Center have cited several reasons for their position — some more reasonable than others.

First is the not inconsiderable cost to build a new facility. Approving the bond will result in a $22.46 bump in annual property tax per $100,000 of assessed value for homeowners.

But there is a cost to inaction, as well.

Johnson County now spends about $1 million each year to house jail inmates outside the county. There are other kinds of costs, too.

For example, the cost to civil litigants whose trials are repeatedly delayed because of inadequate courtroom space.

Building now, the county will be able to take advantage of current construction costs and all-time low interest rates.

Bottom line: There may never be a better time to take on this project, which can only be delayed — not done away with.

A second major concern of some critics is the size of the proposed new jail. “If you build it, they will fill it” — or so the thinking goes.

But over the past decade in discussing the issue, the county has more than proven that increases in jail populations are primarily a matter of county growth and sentencing requirements, not county policy.

In fact, the Johnson County Jail currently operates nearly a dozen diversion programs that have helped reduce jail populations. Increasing jail capacity would allow more inmates to participate in those programs and allow for new programs currently unavailable because of a lack of space, including education, parenting and life skills classes that can help reduce recidivism. But even full implementation of these programs likely can only slow, not stop or reverse, the rate of incarceration in a county whose population is growing faster than almost anywhere else in Iowa.

Finally, there are those who oppose the project for philosophical reasons, or in spiteful retaliation for unrelated county decisions on other issues. These critics argue that voting “no” on the justice center referendum will send a message about their concerns.

But rejecting this much-needed county building project will not resolve issues of disproportionate incarceration of minorities, or change sentencing laws for drug offenders — two commonly voiced concerns. It is even less appropriate and relevant for voters to express their displeasure about recent county zoning decisions by casting a “no” vote here.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A Justice Center addition with a more modern design will allow the sheriff to operate the expanded jail without hiring additional staff, while enabling much stricter supervision. It will make transporting inmates to court much safer and easier. It will ease the pressure on a heavily overburdened court schedule. It will resolve issues of accessibility for people with disabilities. And it will improve safety for everyone, including the public using the facilities.

It’s an upgrade that is long overdue.

In fact, the biggest challenge for supporters may be to convince the average voter to care enough about the issue to turn out to the polls next month.

But this vote is about more than pocketbook issues. We all benefit from a safe, efficient court facility and adequate jail.

We urge voters to cast their ballot in this special election. And we see many good reasons to check “yes.”

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Categories: Commentary, Endorsement, News Coverage

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