Johnson County voters decide justice center’s fate today

[Source: “Johnson County voters decide justice center’s fate today,” Gazette, 7 May 2013]

20130507tu-justice-center-looking-north-westJohnson County residents will head to the polls today to cast their vote on a $43.5 million bond issue to pay for a new justice center.

Polls are open today from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Plans for the justice center include a new 195-bed jail and courtrooms. The facility would be located just behind the existing county courthouse.

The justice center was supported by 56 percent of voters in an election in November, but it needed 60 percent to pass.

By law, the county had to wait wait six months to put the issue on the ballot again. Since November’s vote, the county has slightly reduced the scope of the project. It will ask voters for a $43.5 million bond issue to pay for a $46.2 million project. In the November election it was a $46.8 million bond and a $48.1 million project.

The cost savings would come by:

  • Reducing the number of jail beds from 243 to 195. More beds could be added in the future as space is needed. The current jail has 92 beds and is constantly overcrowded.
  • Building four new courtrooms instead of six, with space to add four more as needed.
  • Adding more masonry to the exterior of the new building rather than the mostly glass façade that drew some complaints on aesthetic grounds.
  • Having the county put $2.7 million toward construction costs from its budget, up from $1.3 million.

The only change in the ballot language is the amount of the bond.


Here are some of the arguments presented by supporters of the justice center proposal:

  • The current 92-bed jail is constantly overcrowded, and county officials have said 243 beds would serve the county into the coming decades. Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he would consider coming down to 200 beds as long as expansion is possible, but he would not support anything less.
  • County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said he’d like a revised project that is several million dollars cheaper and has fewer jail beds. But the county hired a consultant and spent a couple of years studying the best site for justice center, so the location is nonnegotiable, he said.
  • Pulkrabek said some of the opponents seem to be using the justice center plan as a platform to criticize the criminal justice system in general and drug laws in particular. He has said people arrested on drug offenses are typically released quickly and are not the cause of jail overcrowding.
  • The average daily population at the Johnson County Jail dropped 13.5 percent last year from 2010, contributing to hundreds of thousands in savings, according to the sheriff’s annual report issued in January. Pulkrabek said the numbers show that jail alternatives are working and that more space would enable those efforts – like diversion and treatment programs – to have an even greater impact on individuals facing criminal charges in the county. “I’m hoping that people will see that shipping inmates out of the county is a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” Pulkrabek said. “For us to continue to see a decline (in the jail population) is a good thing, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t need additional space for alternatives and to address the courthouse issues as well.”
  • Check out more from supporters at


Here are some of the arguments presented by opponents:

  • The new 195-bed jail has drawn the most attention, with critics of the proposal saying too many people are arrested, minorities are jailed at disproportionately higher rates and the justice center proposal is too expensive. Jeff Cox, a University of Iowa professor who has campaigned against the justice center, said he’d support more space for jail alternative programs and the expansion of court facilities. But he believes something closer to 150 jail beds, not the 195 proposed, is the appropriate number. “They’re using (jail alternatives) as a kind of Trojan horse to expand the number of people incarcerated,” he said.
  • Martha Hampel of Iowa City, another leader on the anti-justice center side, said she thought the jail diversion programs pursued by the county were fantastic, but she does not believe a new facility is necessary to do them. She said alternatives could be found, like renting space, and voting down the justice center bond would force the county to think outside the box. “I think they’re literally stuck in this giant box that is the proposed justice center,” Hampel said.
  • Last month, opponents gained a new rallying cry: “Spork the Jail.” It came after a Johnson County Jail inmate was arrested for breaking her plastic spork – which is a combination fork and spoon – after dinner. The charge of fifth-degree criminal mischief, a simple misdemeanor, was later dropped against Tera G. Harris, 25, of North Liberty. But the incident is being cited by some people as an example of what they see as pointless arrests that are contributing to jail overcrowding. Donald Baxter of University Heights designed a “Spork the Jail” graphic, posted it on Facebook and hopes people print it out for signs to display. He acknowledged he’s having fun, but insists there’s also a serious point being made. “A lot of us who are opposed to the jail feel that Johnson County, and perhaps Iowa City in particular, is an over-policed environment,” he said.
  • Check out more from opponents at

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