By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– They’re going to try again.
Proponents of a justice center that would combine a new Johnson County jail with expanded facilities for the county courthouse have recovered from their November election loss, regrouped, and are now planning to offer a slightly lower bond referendum to the voters in a May special election. In November, 56 percent of the voters approved the $46.8 million bond issue; the total project cost was to be $48.1 million with the county making up the difference. However, 60 percent approval was needed for the measure to pass.
Had it passed, the county would have constructed a five-level facility with room for 243 inmates, space for the clerk of court and sheriff’s offices, as well as six additional courtrooms to supplement the historic courthouse. The current jail, built in 1981, has a capacity of 92 inmates but was designed for 46. Due to overcrowding, Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek has had to house inmates in other facilities. Currently, the Muscatine County Jail is taking Johnson County’s overflow. Pulkrabek has frequently cited the cost of transporting inmates and the associated costs charged by the other counties as an expense a new Johnson County facility would eliminate.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors hopes a new plan with reductions in inmate beds and other cost savings will be enough to not only retain favorable votes, but also to sway opponents’ minds and get the necessary 60 percent.
The latest revision cuts inmate capacity to 195, has four courtrooms instead of six, replaces some of the glass exterior with stone and utilizes an additional $1.4 million dollars of county money from the Infrastructure Fund and Reserve Fund, up from $1.3 million.
The plan also calls for what supervisor Janelle Rettig called “shelling,” or building the basic framework and utilities for additional inmate housing and courtrooms, but leaving them unfinished until later, as funds became available.
In order to gauge the public’s reaction to the latest plan, the supervisors held a special work session and public comment session Tuesday night in the courthouse. Over the course of two hours, 19 people came to the microphone to offer support, ask questions and state criticisms of the proposal or perceived deficiencies in the criminal justice system.
Incarceration rates were the chief complaint from University of Iowa professor Jeff Cox and others. Cox said he was concerned with a high rate of incarceration within the county, and the lasting effects of arrest and conviction records on college graduates. The professor said university students are arrested at a higher rate.
“Our students are coming out of here with a serious disability,” Cox said. While noting his respect for the staff working in the current jail, Cox said he was reluctant to support what he perceives as an opportunity to further increase the jail population.
Others expressed similar concerns that a larger jail would lead to a higher inmate population. Some referred to a “prison-industrial complex” and asked the supervisors to put more dollars toward addressing poverty and other social issues rather than a new jail. Among them was Tom Lewis.
“If you want to take $43 million out of the community’s future, then put it into things that are really helpful,” Lewis said. “You’ll either fill it with more arrests here (in Johnson County) or you’ll start importing (housing other counties’ inmates).” The bottom line, he said, was that more people would be incarcerated.
Supervisors Rettig, Rod Sullivan and Sheriff Pulkrabek explained the county’s jail alternative programming and the limited space available for rehabilitation and therapy in the current jail.
“The six people up here are not unsympathetic to your concerns,” Sullivan told Lewis.
Opponents also pointed to the disproportionate number of minority inmates in the current jail, an issue which Lewis said has yet to be addressed. Cox cited a study showing blacks making up 5 percent of the population in Iowa City, but comprising 40 percent of the jail census. Cox said decisions made at the local level could influence arrest rates.
Sullivan pointed out most of the arrests come from the Iowa City Police Department, the University of Iowa police force and the Coralville and North Liberty police departments. The sheriff’s office accounts for the least number of arrests, according to Sullivan. Lewis proposed building a much smaller jail to influence the other agencies’ arrest policies. Sullivan dismissed the idea, saying it would only lead to other jails being built by cities such as Iowa City.
Rettig said there would be more rehabilitation, therapy and training opportunities in a new facility.
“We haven’t done a good job (in that area),” said Rettig, again citing the lack of space for such programming.
“The county is very, very progressive, but we can’t solve all of society’s ills,” said Pulkrabek, who said his jail and many others across the state of Iowa are “the number one mental health program.” The sheriff said lack of space and need to move inmates in and out also limits the ability to work with the prisoners consistently.
Solving safety issues, particularly in the courthouse, was high on Jim McCarragher’s list of reasons to support the new facility. A member of “Yes for Justice,” McCarragher spoke on behalf of the justice center to the Tiffin City Council last August. At Tuesday’s public hearing, the attorney outlined safety and security problems, including a lack of a sprinkler system for fire suppression. Also, with the current courthouse, inmates end up sharing space with the public, a situation fraught with risks, he said. Under the proposal, inmates would be brought up from the jail in their own secured elevator, and would be kept separate from the public. Additionally McCarragher pointed out a storage problem in the clerk’s office that has bowed floor. McCarragher also listed Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) deficiencies.
“It’s the right time to do the right thing,” McCarragher said in summation.
McCarragher’s wife Mimi opened her remarks by saying the county has a history of, papering and researching things almost to death, and that the justice center has been studied and discussed for over a decade. Discussions on incarceration rates and mental health need to be continued, she added. Referencing the November 1991 Gang Lu shooting on the UI campus, she added, “Our community is not immune to it (acts of violence) it is an extremely volatile situation at the courthouse. I can’t believe that we don’t have metal detectors, let alone a sprinkler system.” People have told her of their own safety concerns, she said. “(They were) fearful when they came to this courthouse to serve as jurors. And I think that’s sad.”
Steve Swenka of rural Johnson County asked about the cost of housing inmates in other counties versus the cost of keeping them all in-house, and what savings, if any, would come from housing them here.
“Essentially, you can keep people here for roughly the same amount to keep them there (in Muscatine County),” Sullivan answered. The issue, though, is the cost of the transport. “You’ve got some savings, but not nearly the $1.3 million (cost to the county for shipping inmates out).” Sullivan said the county is getting a fair deal from Muscatine County currently, but there is no guarantee it will always be that way.
Sheriff Pulkrabek said two deputies currently devote all of their time to the logistics of where inmates are, where they need to be, and getting them there. “That’s something you wouldn’t have if they were all housed in-county,” Pulkrabek said. The sheriff also highlighted increased efficiencies in bringing inmates to court and monitoring them better with the layout of the new jail. Pulkrabek said his staff would be able to watch more prisoners with the same amount of staff. There would be one new hire however; a nurse practitioner to administer medications to inmates with medical issues. He also said two deputies would be hired to bolster security in the courthouse.
Swenka also asked about what he called a misconception about football Saturdays.
“(People believe) you guys want to spend $46 million dollars because we have a bunch of kids at football games that are getting out of hand,” Swenka said.
“We understand,” Pulkrabek said, “that on seven weekends per year, the population of the jail and of the city balloons. So we have to plan for that.” In the past inmates were moved out on Friday for the weekend to make room for the expected surge. The displaced inmates would then be brought back later on Sunday.
The design of the new jail is based on average daily population; a study from 1983 to 2012 showed an increase of roughly four inmates per year throughout the period. Projecting out to 2032 results in an inmate population of 244. “That’s how we arrived at that number (243 inmate capacity in the design). But that didn’t pass, so we’ve tried to address the issues of not overbuilding.” Pulkrabek said they did not want to send a message of, ‘if they build it, they’ll arrest more and fill it.’ “So we scaled it back.”
Even with the scaled back, design some audience members like Amanda Murphy were convinced there has to be a better way of dealing with the accused and convicted. Murphy said she found the inmate population grew from 30 in the early 1980s to 150 in 2010, which gave her great concern. “Somehow, we’ve really escalated how we define criminals. (Many arrestees are) addicts, mentally ill, poor people and we have a great disparity of people of color.” Murphy called for an overhaul of the entire prison-industrial complex, and urged reforms in favor of people who do not have the means to post bail while awaiting their pre-trial hearing.
Rettig took Murphy’s comments as an opportunity to voice her personal opinion.
“What happened in the eighties,” Rettig said, “was Ronald Reagan and the conservative revolution. They decided to change laws in this country and incarcerate more people.” Rettig added, “(in the past decade), everybody ‘needs’ their own assault weapon and arsenal. I have opposed that over and over again. I hate building jail space.”
Rettig also blamed Governor Terry Branstad for cuts to the court system.
“He would rather have a billion dollars in the bank,” she said. “I think we have one of the most liberal bodies of government officials of any county in Iowa, for sure, and in the country. We are on your side; I am on your side. But, some of this is out of our control.”
The supervisors will make a final decision in mid-February whether to finalize the ballot measure and put the special election on the calendar. The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 5:30 p.m. in the County Health and Human Services Building, 855 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City.