Any voter who cares about our community should pay special attention to the referendum on the new “justice center”, which includes plans for a large expansion of jail capacity. The current jail has a capacity of 96; the new jail has a capacity for 243.
The current jail is overcrowded, with a nightly average of roughly 160 that requires the sheriff to send prisoners to neighboring counties, which all have excess capacity because of an epidemic of jail overbuilding in Iowa. With a capacity of 243, the new jail represents a 50 percent growth in the number of people incarcerated.
Who will be jailed? Johnson County is roughly 5% black, but 40% of prisoners on an average night are black. Right here in River City, the gap between the black population and the number of black people incarcerated is one of the worst in the entire nation.
What is driving the mass incarceration in Johnson County is the War on Drugs, which affects all young people, black and white. In Iowa City, where marijuana is the overwhelming drug of choice, drug arrests by the Iowa City Police Department soared from 332 in 2007 to 626 in 2011. According to Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, jail overcrowding is being driven by “recidivists”, i.e. marijuana offenders who fail to meet the terms of their probation or parole, or the terms of the drug “diversion” programs.
The University of Iowa police department, now fully armed with tasers and guns, is arresting more and more young people. Over the last decade their budget has doubled, from 2.5 million to 5 million. Over the last three years the number of University of Iowa students charged with a crime, a stigma that they will carry all over their lives, has grown by 25 percent.
It is time to put a stop to the preventable harm that we inflict on young people, including students and African-Americans. Jail advocates should go back to the drawing board and design a Justice Center with a jail for 160 inmates, which is the current demand.
—Jeff Cox, Iowa City