Justice center friends and foes talk project’s future

[Source: “Justice center friends and foes talk project’s future,” Iowa City Press Citizen, 10 August 2013, by Aly Brown]

Above: Listening Posts: Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chairperson Janelle Rettig talks about what she hopes will come out of a series of listening posts dedicated to hearing residents’ concerns about future jail and courthouse development.

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Iowa City community members voiced their opinions about how the Johnson County Board of Supervisors should address the aging jail and criminal justice space needs at a listening post Saturday.

The listening post at City Hall was the first in a series of seven.

Chairwoman Janelle Rettig, Supervisor John Etheredge and County Attorney Janet Lyness hosted the input session during which about 20 residents of Iowa City and surrounding towns offered their concerns and solutions to what officials say is an “outdated” jail.

“In a way, we’re kind of starting over,” Rettig said. “ … We’re not quite starting from scratch because we have a lot of research.”

Participants spoke about anything from the architectural design of the proposed $43.5 million justice center, which was voted down again in May, to the jail’s demographics and how officials should better inform the public about court services issues.

Rettig stressed that the 92-bed jail’s aging equipment presents security issues, including the cell doors, cameras and sensors. Rettig said the temporary improvements being added into the budget will be a “Band-Aid” until a more comprehensive solution is voted on.

Rettig said officials can apply for a maximum of $1.2 million in bonds without having to pass a ballot referendum, and any “significant investment to modernize the jail” will be beyond.

Donald Baxter of University Heights said he was concerned about the architectural integrity of the proposed center. Several residents agreed that the building should instigate development in the surrounding lots, rather than hinder growth.

“It created blocks of dead walking space (with) buildings that people don’t want to walk past,” he said. “The county needs to talk to city planners. These are all things other cities have talked about and resolved, but for some reason for the county it’s not even an issue.”

Officials and residents said they also were concerned about the lack of courtroom space at the courthouse. Lyness said civil cases now are the lowest priority and defendants often sit in the jail for up to a year before they face trial.

“We used to never have criminal cases more than a year old,” she said. “Now they’re routine.”

Although many participants disagreed on the details, most agreed that too many people are arrested in Iowa City. Solutions to address crime before resorting to jail time were favorable, including improving police and resident relationships and community policing.

Iowa City Council candidate Kingsley Botchway II suggested a community policing model like that seen in Chicago neighborhoods. Botchway said the model would make the streets safer, while addressing misconceptions about officers.

“There is the perception that police are bad,” he said. “There is an ‘us and them’ mentality.”

Lyness said county and police department officials are considering community policing, including alternatives to arresting offenders.

Botchway said officials will need to include the community in policy conversations more if they wish to present a similar plan to the justice center.

“It’s very important to have community involvement,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll run into the same problems again when you put it back on the ballot.”

Sean Curtin of Iowa City said that although he would consider improvements to the city’s jail, officials should not attempt to reintroduce the justice center plans.

“You’ve been after a multimillion dollar project for almost as long as I’ve been alive,” Curtin said. “Don’t go for it again. It’s making people upset, and you are in contempt of the will of the voters.”

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Categories: Event, Justice Reform, News Coverage

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