Don’t saddle county with inadequate jail, courthouse

[Source: “Don’t saddle county with inadequate jail, courthouse,” Press Citizen, 2 May 2013, by Dorothy Whiston]

Don’t saddle county with inadequate jail, courthouse

People across the political spectrum agree that racial disparities in our criminal justice system are at crisis proportions and have been for some time, both nationally and locally. I also believe opposition to the justice center bond issue is the least effective way to address those concerns.

In the spring of 2010, the Consultation of Religious Communities made issues related to race and law enforcement a priority. This initiative gave rise to a broad-based network called the Coalition for Racial Justice that’s working to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, education and in access to affordable housing. Not coincidentally, many of the people involved in these ongoing efforts also support the proposed justice center.

The coalition includes people from nonprofit agencies and faith communities, elected officials, public employees, UI and concerned citizens. The coalition frequently has advocated with the Iowa City mayor, city manager, police chief, Housing Authority staff, human rights commissioner and Iowa City Community School District staff and board members.

The coalition lobbied the Iowa City Council to establish the Ad Hoc Diversity Committee to look at the needs of our minority communities in relation to the Iowa City Police Department and public transportation. That committee made a comprehensive report to the council in March. Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations regarding the police were not well covered by the media.

Perhaps most telling was the committee’s conclusion that the Iowa City police department “is currently functioning under a ‘control and monitor’ approach to dealing with minority citizens.” They recommended that the police department’s culture be changed to one more geared to “protect and serve.”

The Diversity Committee proposed the city consider adopting a community policing model and that police officers receive better training related to race. They recommended the police collect better data for looking at racial disparities and that the department conduct a comprehensive racial equity impact assessment.

Implementation of these recommendations by Iowa City would likely do a lot to reduce the racial disparity in the county jail because the majority of arrests are made by Iowa City officers. I hope you will read the full Diversity Committee report (www.icgov.org/?id=2268) and join the CRJ in lobbying city officials to take these much needed steps.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors already has made a commitment to undertake a comprehensive racial equity impact assessment and to address the disparities revealed by the assessment. The supervisors also have enlisted all the law enforcement agencies in the county to collect data and to join in addressing issues related to racial disparities.

A lot remains to be done to remedy racial disparities in our local law enforcement and judicial systems, and it will take several years to do it. But, particularly at the county level, we have officials in place committed to doing this work according to evidence-based protocols.

Continuing to saddle our officials with seriously inadequate jail and courthouse facilities just when we are on the threshold of making significant progress would be a real set-back.

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the colossal failure of the War on Drugs, and simply treating jail inmates humanely are very important issues. Therefore I urge you to vote in favor of the bond issue for the Johnson County justice center. And I hope you will join in the local efforts to address these concerns already well underway.

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About the Author. The Rev. Dorothy Whiston is a member of the Consultation of Religious Communities, the Coalition for Racial Justice and the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. She has volunteered in Iowa prisons for 20 years.

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