[Source: “New jail for 195 inmates is immediately necessary,” Press Citizen, 3 May 2013, by John Whiston, a Clinical Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.]
Every year, my students represent about 100 people charged with indictable misdemeanors. I would be one of the first to say that over-incarceration of non-violent offenders is a real problem. However, I still believe that building a justice center with 195 jail beds is the right thing to do.
The movement in this country to incarcerate people for non-violent offenses and for longer times began in the 1970s and picked up steam with the War on Drugs. Jails became the dumping ground for people with serious mental illness and substance abuse problems. Only very recently, when we began to realize we couldn’t afford to lock up so many people, has the tide slowed at all.
So how do we deal with it? Many local initiatives are already in place. Johnson County already has a mental health jail diversion program that is a national model and our substance abuse diversion programs are also quite good. And over the last two years, our census has edged down.
But before significant improvement can happen, real change has to happen at City Hall and in Des Moines and Washington — to change the laws which, for instance, limit the ability of judges to give deferred judgments, to increase the funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment and to alter policing policies. But, and this is the most important part, that change is going to be a struggle that takes years and with no real promise of success.
To me, the most important issue is how we deal with people currently in jail or likely to end up there in the next few years — while we try to deal with the larger problems. I do not believe it is fair to require those incarcerated in our wealthy community to serve time in inhumane conditions while we try to fix things.
Time in the Johnson County Jail is hard time. Many clients tell us that they would rather do years in a Department of Corrections prison rather than months in our jail. It is terribly crowded — because of the age of our jail, inmates are allotted half the living space required by law. It is noisy, and as the assault last week shows, it is dangerous. Because of over-crowding, there is basically no programing available — no decent exercise facilities, library, religious services, life skills classes or other rehabilitation programs.
I think opponents of the jail who express concern for these inmates need to think long and hard about the wisdom of sentencing thousands of inmates to these conditions for however long it takes us, if the bond issue fails, to again look at the jail.
The current situation of sending inmates out of the county is also inhumane to their families. Family contact is crucial to both inmates’ rehabilitation and to the stability of their families. Exporting inmates also slows down the judicial system and means longer stays in jail. Consulting with my clients or getting them just to sign papers can require hours or even days rather than a matter of minutes. This often means that they spend extra days in jail.
Yes, over-incarceration is a problem, but defeating the jail proposal will do almost nothing to help. The proposed new justice center, on the other hand, would allow the county to offer mental health and substance abuse treatment, educational programing, better discharge planning and related services in the jail. These would help reduce the length of stay and likely reduce recidivism rates.
We need to house inmates for the foreseeable future under the laws we have now. And if something is not done, we will need to revert in just a couple of years to the same practice of exporting them away from family and friends.
In sum, a new jail for 195 inmates is immediately necessary. I hope that you will support it.
About the Author. John Whiston teaches in the University of Iowa College of Law.