Guess what: the Johnson County Justice Center proposal is back from the dead. In November of last year, opponents of the proposal to build a new, bigger jail in the heart of Iowa City (at a cost to the public of $48.1 million) cheered when it fell 4 percent short of the 60 percent supermajority required for adoption at the polls.
Opponents of the Justice Center derided the project as overly expensive and too likely to perpetuate excessive incarceration.
So, has the project been amended to accommodate these concerns?
No, not really.
When the new Justice Center comes to a vote on May 7, it will be just $1.9 million leaner, featuring a redesigned façade, 48 fewer beds and two fewer courtrooms.
Officially, the County says it is proceeding with such haste in an attempt to maintain the “freshness” of the information it disseminated about the Justice Center ahead of the November vote. Unofficially, it seems that the County has effectively adopted a goal-line offense with regard to the Justice Center. By establishing their apparent willingness to put the issue to a vote every few months until in passes, the County has created an air of inevitably around the Justice Center. Right now, it feels like the County will just keep pounding this plan up our gut until something passes.
The Justice Center’s supporters point to several problems with the current jail that the Justice Center would correct. Proponents argue the jail is dangerously overcrowded; despite having only 92 beds, the jail has an average daily population of 160. The Justice Center would feature just over 190 beds, presumably easing the space constraints and improving safety.
Furthermore, according to supporters, the Justice Center is needed to alleviate the burden on the Courthouse, which does not have the space or resources to keep up with the backlog of trials. As a result of the delays, many inmates are kept in jail for too long as they wait for a trial. Along with questions this raises about a person’s right to a speedy trial, it also costs the County more money. The Justice Center proposal would increase the number of courtrooms by four.
Opponents of the first Justice Center remain skeptical of the new proposal. First, there’s the price tag: $46.2 million, the vast majority of which will be paid for by taxpayers. According to some opponents, the Justice Center is unnecessarily expensive, while others argue that the County is rushing to make a decision without adequately considering cheaper alternatives.
But arguably the most popular sentiment is that the Justice Center would perpetuate, and perhaps worsen, the problem of over-incarceration in Johnson County. While the average daily population of the county jail increased by 552 percent between 1983 and 2011, the total population of Johnson County increased by only 154 percent. In fact, between mid-2004 and 2011, the average population of the Johnson County jail was growing at a record rate of nearly 10 percent per year. Shamefully, while only about 5 percent of Johnson County’s population is black, about 40 percent of those who passed through the county jail in 2011 were black. According to opponents of the proposal, the Justice Center represents a reinvestment in a bad system.
This last point is undeniably true; the system is broken. A report from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University argued last year that the number of inmates in the American prison system is inflated by more than 30 percent thanks to the unnecessary imprisonment of non-violent perpetrators of such “victimless crimes” as the voluntary buying and selling of drugs. The report’s author, Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker, suggests implementing alternative punishments for non-violent offenders to reduce the myriad negative impacts of over-incarceration.
As it stands, Johnson County currently has a handful of jail-alternative programs in place. These programs include case expediting, mental health screening and diversion, various drug diversion programs and electronically-monitored work release, among others. Unfortunately, the county insists that its efforts to expand these alternative programs are hamstrung by the high cost in dollars and resources of maintaining an overcrowded, inefficient prison.
When we wrote about the Justice Center and alternative punishment in October of last year, we came to the following conclusion: “When reduced to its most basic state, the controversy surrounding the Justice Center looks like a series of frustrating Catch-22s: We imprison too many people, for example, but the best way to reduce that number may be to increase our capacity to try people [by building the Justice Center].”
We assumed then that if we wanted fewer prisoners, we may have needed a bigger jail. There is now a new dynamic at play in this debate, however: a sense that an unstoppable force–the County’s goal-line offense–is about to run up against an immovable object–the public’s apparent unwillingness to move forward with the Justice Center. It seems that this conflict could favor opponents of the Justice Center, who could extract more concessions from Johnson County by continuing to reject the Justice Center referenda.
Perhaps, by further delaying approval, the public can force Johnson County to craft a plan that puts the expansion of jail alternatives with a proven record of saving money and reducing crowding ahead of outright expansion on its list of prioritie