[Source: “Editorial: Vote ‘yes’ on the Justice Center,” Daily Iowan, 6 May 2013, by the Daily Iowan Editorial Board]
In November 2012, when the original Johnson County Justice Center was presented to the public for a vote, the Editorial Board recommended that the voters reject the bond referendum. The original center narrowly failed to garner the necessary support of 60 percent of Johnson County residents.
A slightly altered justice-center proposal will be put to another vote on Tuesday, and, in the intervening months, we have changed our mind with regard to the virtues of the proposed complex that will include a new jail, the Sheriff’s Office, and increased courtroom space. We encourage Johnson County voters to vote yes on the justice center this time around.
In November, we opposed the Justice Center on the grounds that it was too expensive and that jail overcrowding might be better combated by diverting more county resources into jail-alternative programs. Our position was naïve; we viewed the debate as too many do, in ideological terms — as a product of the tension between law and order conservatism and libertarianism. But the need for the justice center is ultimately rooted in pragmatism, in real concerns about the long-term health of the county’s facilities. We missed this point originally, and we believe those who view the justice center as simply an oppressive extension of the criminal-justice system continue to miss this point.
The bond referendum to be voted is set at $43.5 million, down approximately $3.3 million from November’s asking price. It’s not a massive price cut, but to achieve these savings, the county reduced the size of the new jail from 243 beds to 195, reduced the number of new courtrooms from six to four, and made some cosmetic changes to the building’s façade. We originally criticized the county for failing to adequately pare down the justice-center plan in response to the failure of the first plan. But we recognize now that the current facilities are indeed inadequate and that now, when borrowing money is relatively cheap, is an ideal time to begin a new building project.
The current jail is overcrowded; overflow inmates are routinely shipped to nearby counties to be held at a high cost to Johnson County. The jail’s outdated linear design limits the ability of guards to supervise inmate behavior and thus compromises the safety of guards and inmates alike. Difficulties in monitoring inmates mean that more guards are required in the jail at all times. County officials say that the new jail’s pod-based design would significantly improve inmate supervision and reduce the number of guards needed to effectively monitor the jail.
The county Courthouse also has serious shortcomings. The current building lacks sufficient office space and courtroom space to handle the county’s caseload in a timely manner. Case backlog contributes to jail overcrowding — many of the jail’s inmates are high-risk offenders awaiting trial. But inefficiency in the courthouse also affects Johnson County residents who aren’t in jail; because civil court cases are given low priority, they are often delayed substantially. The justice center will improve efficiency in Johnson County’s courts and improve safety and accessibility in its existing facilities.
In our original piece, the Editorial Board stressed the need for jail-alternative programs to reduce overcrowding. There are numerous programs in place to divert people from jail time, including a mental-health-diversion program that reduced the average daily inmate population by around six inmates last year according to county officials. Other such programs are intended to keep marijuana and hard-drug users properly treated and out of jail. Unfortunately, the resources allocated to such programs are limited by the heavy resource burden placed on the county by an overcrowded jail and a backlogged court system. Building the justice center should allow the county to allocate more money to these valuable programs.
It is clear that the justice center represents a necessary upgrade to the county’s criminal-justice infrastructure. Some opponents of the center say that upgraded, larger facilities would lead to more widespread imprisonment. We have never subscribed to the notion of “If you build it, then they’ll fill it.” There’s no reason to believe that simply increasing space in the jail would lead to more arrests and incarcerations.
Ultimately, this debate is less about the nature of the criminal-justice system and more about facilities and money. The county cannot change the state and federal laws that the police are responsible for enforcing. The current facilities are manifestly inadequate, borrowing costs are low. We should take this opportunity to build the justice center.
We encourage Johnson County residents to vote yes on the justice center.