Johnson County Justice Center

Committee mulls future of jail, courthouse

[Source: “Committee mulls future of jail, courthouse,” Press Citizen, 4 September 2013, by Aly Brown]

Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee members were not any closer to making a definitive call on the direction of the jail, courthouse and criminal justice services at Wednesday’s meeting.

Members rehashed the results from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors’ recent public input meetings, and scheduled future listening posts featuring the public and government workers. Board of Supervisors chairwoman Janelle Rettig said that although last month’s seven listening posts weren’t highly attended, they still worked to start a conversation with the public.

“They weren’t particularly large meetings, but I think the conversation at them got pretty big and pretty in depth with a lot of give and take,” she said.

While keeping the public in the conversation, committee members said they will turn to government workers and law enforcement to determine their needs and plans they are willing to compromise on.

John Stratton, University of Iowa professor emeritus and citizen representative, said “the people that work there are the people who know best what they need.”

Committee members said they hope the upcoming listening posts will clarify what the majority of voters and government workers want in the Johnson County justice system.

County Attorney Janet Lyness said that in the three public input sessions she attended, she couldn’t determine a strong majority one way or the other.

“It was really all over the board,” she said. “While some speakers agreed that the currently proposed plan should be voted down, they disagreed on the direction the county should take.”

MECCA CEO Ron Berg said that although his ideal solution would be to improve the jail and the courthouse, the bottom line remains the same.

“The bottom line is safety,” he said. “Safety for the public, safety for the employees, for the inmates, and I think that should drive the conversation forward.”

Although infrastructure improvements to the jail still are up in the air, members of the public voiced concerns regarding who is filling jail beds.

Caroline Dieterle of Iowa City said she has spoken with many residents affected by local law enforcement’s disproportionate contact with minorities, an issue committee members say they are looking into.

“I do know that a lot of people who do go to the jail belong there, but so many people I talked to had stories to tell about people they knew personally who had contact with law enforcement that wasn’t justified,” she said.

Several residents voiced concerns about marijuana violators filling the jail, but jail deputy Brian Kahler said the numbers don’t match up.

Kahler presented the inmate roster from Aug. 22, not including overnight arrests such as PAULAs and first-time marijuana offenders. Kahler said there are misconceptions that overnight arrest offenders take up jail beds, when in fact most cells hold felony and habitual offenders.

Out of 142 inmates at the Johnson County Jail two weeks ago, 19 are serving sentences and 123 are waiting for their day in court.

Of those awaiting trial, 10 inmates committed drug violations, and of those, only two were arrested for marijuana-related charges in addition to other violations. Seventy-nine inmates were being held for felony offenses, including violent crimes.

“There is a misconception that people who are in the jail are there for failure to pay fines, or their sole charge is marijuana, or simple misdemeanor public intoxication,” he said. “There are none. That’s a myth that I think is just not going to go away.”

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