Local group gauges public opinion on Justice Center

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[Source: “Local group gauges public opinion on Justice Center,” Daily Iowan, 26 September 2013, by Emily Friese]

The number of local elections that shot down a new justice center stands firmly at 2-0. With a public-interest survey in its second phase, there is a new opportunity to gain insight on the contentious topic.

The current Johnson County Jail was built in 1981 and holds 92 inmates. However, according to the jail population statistics, roughly 160 Johnson County residents at any given time need to be held in jail, but only a percentage stay in the Johnson County Jail. This in turn forces the county to spend close to $1.3 million yearly to send inmates to other county jails.

In Nov. 2012, Johnson County residents failed to pass a proposed bond referendum that would put $46.8 million into the construction of a new, 243-bed facility with six courtrooms. While 56 percent voted in approval, it failed to pass the 60 percent required supermajority.

In May, an updated $43.5 million bond referendum reduced the number of beds and courtroom space from the earlier proposal. Votes once again fell short of the supermajority, coming in at just 54 percent.

Survey 2.0: Design a Justice Center Online, is the second survey to be released by the Johnson County Justice Center interest group. It was posted on the Justice Center’s website earlier this month and will be taken offline on Sept. 30. Anyone can log in and take the survey.

The first online survey, posted in August, asked the public what they wanted from a new Justice Center.

Greg Johnson, a volunteer with the Johnson County Justice Center group, said the design of the new survey is to identify possible solutions to the polarizing debate.

“We’ve talked about the problems; now, let’s talk about the solutions,” he said.

The recent survey asks members of the community to identify and design their “ideal” justice center and to post ideas regarding facility location, sustainability features, services, and staffing.

Aleksey Gurtovoy, a member of Vote No Justice Center, said while he respects what Johnson is trying to do with the survey, he feels the public should not be focusing so much on the physical building.

“There are issues in the criminal justice system that we think should be worked on before the county comes to the public and asks for money for a new one,” he said. “There are things that nobody really understands, like why our county jail population is three times what it should be … it doesn’t make sense to talk about the jail before we get our situation under control.”

Conversely, Johnson said problems within the criminal-justice system in the community must be addressed, such as worn-out courthouses, a lack of basic safety mechanisms, an outdated fire-protection system, and general accessibility issues.

“Our jail and courthouse are not legal,” he said. “They should shut it down, but it’s all we have. We can’t continue to bunk people in tiny rooms or ship people off. At some point, the state may come and shut it down because it’s just not right.”

Johnson said he plans to share information from the survey in a written report with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors as well as the public once results are in.

Supervisor Pat Harney said while he does not recall receiving feedback from the first survey, the supervisors take public feedback very seriously.

“We’ve had listening posts where we went to different communities to get public opinion, but they aren’t highly attended,” he said. “It’s interesting that we aren’t getting the people to come listen and ask questions about this.”

And while there is no permanent plan to vote for a new Justice Center, Harney said they’re trying to get the ball rolling.

“We’ve been working on this since 2000,” he said. “We’re going to meet with law officials and garner more interest from the public. We’re moving it forward, but there is no date, place, or time yet. It could be a year from now.”

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Reader Comments

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From Greg Johnson, JCJusticeCenter Volunteer

This is a well written article overall, and it’s nice to get the word out about the online survey available here https://jcjusticecenter.com/2013/09/09/survey-2-0-design-a-justice-center-online/

I wanted to clarify something that when paraphrased into a sound bite didn’t quite convey what I was trying to say. In referring to our courthouse and jail as being illegal, the point I was trying to make is that were these facilities built today, they would not be approved because they don’t meet what is currently required for these facilities in regard to space, safety, and security. Because they were built before some more recent safety and accessibility laws went into effect, we’re able to keep using them. However, that doesn’t make it right. As I understand it, the state would not approve a jail similar to ours were it to be built or proposed today because it does not provide adequate space. In that regard, it is “illegal.”

I agree with the comment that Aleksey Gurtovoy made regarding the need to fix the local justice issues and not ignore them and just build a bigger jail. I presume those opposed to a larger jail, would at least be in favor of a new jail of the same or smaller size. At least that would give us a facility that had more space to provide prevention programs, and it would meet the safety and security needs. It could also be built in compliance with the laws that are written for the benefit of everyone involved.

The real debate shouldn’t be about whether we get a new facility. A new facility is needed. We simply need to agree on what we feel is an agreeable incarceration rate for our county. At present, we have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. Much has been done by community organizations as well as the county to get us there.

We have an excellent board of supervisors. However, it’s not the responsibility of less than a dozen people to solve the social justice issues for the other 130,000 people in the county. This is a community-wide problem, and we must have a community-wide solution. We’re all part of the problem unless we’re all working toward a solution. It’s easy and comfortable to blame the county government or local law enforcement for 100% of the racial disparity. That’s a small group to choose as a scapegoat for a much broader systemic issue. Our county as a community needs to make sure we expand on the already exceptional efforts to provide opportunities for education, employment, and social services to assist those in need (including mental health care, drug/alcohol treatment, and housing). This is OUR job as a community to come up with a solution, and just pointing fingers at a few people in leadership isn’t going to solve the problem.

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Brian Kahler, Deputy Sheriff, Johnson County

“like why our county jail population is three times what it should be”.

This is the same person who keeps quoting that we should only have 50 people in jail. Criminals do not decide to commit a crime based on population statistics, it is foolish to think that any kind of population ratio is the sole reason for crime. Culture and what a society accepts as “normal” are the benchmarks.

Why does BlackHawk County, which is now smaller than Johnson County, have more than double our inmate population? Though it could change at anytime Johnson County averages 140 inmates whereas BlackHawk County exceeds 290 normally, as of today they have 270 inmates. If population was the only factor BlackHawk County should have less than Johnson County yet they do not, why is that?.

Take Flint Michigan for example. They had more murders per capita than any other city in the US in 2012 at 64.9 murders per 100,000 people. Imagine Iowa City/Coralville combined having that many murders, which would be comparable. If population were to blame why does our community not have the same amount of homicides? http://www.policymic.com/articles/22686/america-s-10-deadliest-cities-2012

The majority of arrests are overwhelmingly due to the Officer being dispatched to the scene by a third party, a passerby, relative, etc…Nearly all of the people in Johnson County awaiting trial were arrested due to the Officer being sent to a location, not due to an officer initiated stop. Why is it that Law Enforcement is faulted for responding to a call for service? It is far easier to point fingers at Police rather than admitting that our morals and values are slowly eroding as time goes on. Crime percentages may be falling, but the severity of the crimes is increasing.

The vote no group would like the law abiding citizens to feel guilty because people are in jail for consciously committing a crime which resulted in an arrest. They would like everybody to believe the false assumption that the jail is full of nothing but college kids or people being held on non-violent marijuana charges. They won’t tell the county residents that there are Murderers, Burglars, Domestic Abusers, Meth Dealers, Robbers, Stalkers, Rapists, or weapons charges in the jail. They won’t tell the law abiding citizens that nearly all of the inmates in general population have prior criminal records, they want to guilt the rest of us into believing only poor people who were falsely arrested are in jail awaiting their court date.

Common myths include:

  • “The jail is full of college kids” — The average age of inmates is 33 years old (on 8/22)
  • “The jail is full of marijuana offenses” — There are zero inmates charged with small amounts of marijuana
  • “The jail is full of poor people who could not pay fines” — There are zero inmates for failure to pay a fine
  • “The jail is full of non-violent offenders” — 80% of those in jail have Aggravated or Felony charges, the other 20% make up Probation & Parole Violators. Low level charges are rare and not the norm.

The last failed bond referendum was for46 million, yet only 14.3 million was for a new jail facility. The proposed facility was designed to save taxpayer money in the long run by constructing it in a way that would allow for future expansion should it be needed. The downfall of the current building is that expansion was not taken into account, thus we are using a building built 33 years ago that is meant to house 46 inmates.

The facility is past its useful life cycle, odds are the building will not pass the state jail inspector in the near future. This is what happened to Washington County and it is also why Johnson County was forced to go from 46 beds to 92 by double bunking in 1990. The jail cannot be physically expanded in the current location. A facility to house 196 inmates plus having the ability to expand should the need arise is both fiscally responsible for the taxpayers as well as planning for future needs.

With what little space is available the County inmate average has actually decreased the past 3yrs by about 20, this is mostly due to jail alternatives put in place by the County Attorney’s office and Sheriff Pulkrabek. The no side would like everyone to believe that the jail or arrests generate revenue, this is absolutely not true.

Regardless of the actual physical building, if we build a facility that would be at maximum capacity the day it opened, as the vote no side has suggested we do, that would be a total waste of taxpayer money as the County would still have to ship inmates to other locations depriving them of family & attorney visits and generally slowing down the legal process potentially resulting in a longer stay in jail.

What the design is or should be can be debated, but to use taxpayer money to construct a building that would be at maximum capacity the day it opened it just not logical.

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