Press Citizen Supports Justice Center – “Vote ‘YES’ and keep addressing concerns”

[Source: “Our View: Vote ‘yes’ and keep addressing concerns,” Press Citizen, 30 April 2013, by the Press Citizen Editorial Board]

As a newspaper editorial board, our natural inclination is to side with those who are fighting against the power structure.

  • To fight for those who have documented how about 40 percent of the people in the custody of the jail on any given day are black when blacks make up only 5 percent of the county population.
  • To champion the causes of those who point out how the jail population has grown five-fold over the past 30 years while the county population has grown only by about 150 percent.
  • To back those who are working to reduce the number of university students who graduate with a non-violent drug or alcohol charge on their record in addition to the one, two or three majors that they’ve managed to complete.

But we think those struggles should continue in conjunction with — not in opposition to — the new justice center being proposed.

If you removed every single black inmate from the responsibility of the Johnson County jail, the sheriff’s office would still be responsible every day for farming out overflow inmates to neighboring county jails

If you removed everyone charged with marijuana possession alone — as opposed to in conjunction with domestic assault, driving under the influence or some other charge — it would have almost no effect on the daily population of the Johnson County Jail.

Back in 1981, county officials caved to public pressure and requested a bond for a 46-person jail that in no way met the county’s needs for an inmate population. And even worse, the county agreed to a design that didn’t include options for expansion.

In 1993, the jail inspector allowed the county to double bunk inmates and thus increase the jail’s total bed population to 92 — even though everything within the jail was designed for half that number.

The overcrowding finally reached a boiling point in the late 1990s, and the sheriff’s office tried to make a case then for why a larger jail was needed. Unfortunately, the sheriff and other supporters failed to show that they were interested in finding jail alternatives for non-violent offenders who offer no risk to the public.

In hindsight, their proposal deserved the nearly 2-1 trouncing it received at the polls in 2000.

But that 13-year-old bond issue is very different from the recent proposals for a justice center that will address the problems of a grossly overcrowded jail as well as the space, security and accessibility concerns of a century old courthouse.

And especially since Lonny Pulkrabek was elected in 2004, the sheriff’s office has been working with the county attorney and others to establish credible, workable, successful jail diversion and alternative programs.

Some opponents of the current justice center proposal suggest the county officials should separate the jail component from the courthouse and then find the additional money and political will required to build a larger jail on county land near the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Highway 218.

Other critics say that the most cost-efficient plan would involve tearing down the century-old county courthouse — a historic structure — selling the land and starting the planning process over.

But we’ve long supported the plans to purchase more land near the courthouse and build a joint justice center that would cut down enormously on the risks and costs involved with transporting jail inmates.

Other critics argue that the current plans for a justice center would detract from Iowa City’s plans for developing the Riverfront Crossings neighborhood. Yet MidWestOne Bank officials — knowing full well that a justice center is a likely possibility for the area — recently announced that they are looking to build south of Burlington Street.

Although we share many of the opponents’ concerns over the county’s incarceration rate, we don’t think this project should wait another six months or a year. Maintaining the status quo means that, any given day, about 50 Johnson County inmates are being farmed out to jails in neighboring counties. That costs the county in the neighborhood of $1 million a year — down from a high of $1.3 million in 2011.

The inmates who are farmed out don’t have ready access to their lawyers. Nor do they have ready access to their families or any other support system. And basic logistics say that the inmates who are going to be in the jail the longest are the ones who can be sent furthest away.

And the unfortunate truth is that some inmates with special needs actually might fare better in those other, larger jails because those facilities will have space for the programming that the Johnson County jail has no space to offer in the current jail.

We recognize that the odds are very much against county officials managing to muster 60 percent support for a necessary county service that most people would rather pretend doesn’t exist — or at least would rather pretend doesn’t affect them. But kudos to county officials for trying. And kudos to the 56 percent of county residents who voted “yes” for a slightly larger version of this proposal less than six months ago.

Tuesday’s election won’t have the presidential candidates on the ballot to help bring people out. But we still hope that those county residents who are interested in providing a more secure and safer environment for county employees — as well as for innocent-until-proven-guilty jail inmates — will come out and vote “yes.”

And then we hope, on Wednesday, proponents and opponents alike will continue to work on addressing concerns over the racial disparity among local incarceration rates and will continue to push for those jail alternative/diversion programs to be fully staffed and better funded.

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Categories: Commentary, Endorsement, News Coverage

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