JOHNSON COUNTY–Certain Johnson County officials hope $3.3 million in reductions to the design for a proposed justice center will be enough to swing public sentiment in their favor.
In the November 2012 general election, a $46.8 million bond issue for the project was defeated, receiving only 56 percent voter approval when 60 percent was required. Proponents went back to the drawing board almost immediately to revise the plan for a combined jail and improved Johnson County courthouse, and get it back in front of the public as soon as they thought feasible.
On Tuesday, May 7, they will try again. A special election will ask voters to approve $43.5 million in general obligation bonds to erect and equip a county justice center to solve current safety, security and space needs of the sheriff’s office, overcrowded jail and aging courthouse.
Debate raged before the November vote, and has been steady since. Opponents of the proposal say the current jail’s overcrowding is the result of problems in the legal system and not simply a burgeoning county population.
On Jan. 29, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors held a public work session to provide additional education, citing lack of accurate information as a potential reason for the narrow November failure. Last week, the ACLU sponsored another public forum with a panel of speakers who outlined reasons to oppose the project and offered suggestions for improved intake systems and jail alternatives they feel would be more effective in staunching the rise in the jail population long-term.
Both sides are confident that they have presented the issue clearly, and are ready to let the public speak next week.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said the committee working on the jail and courthouse project have attempted to address concerns raised before and since the November election, even down to the proposed building’s façade. (People didn’t like the building’s “glass palace” appearance and low-pitched roof, he said, so both were redesigned to include more stone to better blend with the current courthouse, and a steeper pitch). More practically, the revision cuts inmate capacity from 243 jail beds to 195, has four courtrooms instead of six, and utilizes an additional $1.4 million dollars of county money from its Infrastructure Fund and Reserve Fund.
The plan also calls for “shelling” two of the proposed courtrooms and 48 inmate beds– building the basic framework and utilities for them, but leaving them unfinished until additional capacity is needed; all measures to reduce the asking price to county taxpayers.
With the new bond proposal, the tax impact to the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would be $22.46 per year. On agricultural land, a 75-acre parcel of land with a Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) of 71– a measure of the land’s productivity value– would have a tax impact of $34.02 per year, with the state’s new rollback accounted for.
But reductions in the cost and design do not address underlying issues of overcrowding in the current jail that forces the county to transport prisoners out-of-county to other holding facilities at an average cost of $48 per day, or about $1.3 million per year.
It’s a short-term solution to a long-range problem.
“Tax dollars continue to be shipped out of county,” he said, likening renting jail space to renting a home. “Do we continue renting space or do we dive in, take advantage of low interest rates and stop renting?”
The bigger problem of housing inmates elsewhere is the disconnect it creates between detainees and their support systems. It’s not uncommon for a prisoner’s court hearing to be delayed because attorneys can’t travel to the inmate, transports can’t be conducted on very short notice and families cannot always manage transportation hurdles to visit outside the county.
“Those are the sorts of things– people’s lack of access to the courts, lack of access to their attorneys and lack of access to family members– that are problematic for us,” Pulkrabek added.
According to former University of Iowa professor John Neff, who has compiled years of research and cost analyses of Johnson County jail data, the proposed new facility is projected to run at greater efficiency, costing more like $40 per day to house an inmate (compared to the historic average costs of around $78 per day in-county and $48 per day out-of-county). However, Neff argues, the estimated operational expense does not include the unknown capitalization costs of building the new jail. He thinks it could bring the figure closer to $63 per day, “somewhat lower than the $72 per inmate-day average for the past eight years, but significantly larger than the $45 to $48 per inmate-day cost of out-of-county incarceration,” Neff stated on his blog website, JCO-JUSTICE.com. The county’s website also contains a projected estimate of operational costs, at www.johnson-county.com/dept_blank.aspx?id=12299 .
But even using current data, Neff indicated in an email communication last week, cost estimates remain unreliable.
“It is very common in projects of this type for operating expenses to be underestimated,” Neff wrote. “It is very common for additional staff to be added after start-up that they claimed were not needed. They did not include the program costs (assuming they are funded) probably because they would be provided by contractors paid from a different budget.”
Disputes in cost figures aside, greater dissension lies in the causes of jail overcrowding in the first place.
Inarguably, the present 31-year-old facility, modified to house 92 prisoners, cannot accommodate the 150 to 170 inmates, on average, that require incarceration each day. Pulkrabek points to Johnson County’s population increase from 96,119 to over 136,000 in 12 years.
“We are the fourth largest county with the 15th largest jail (in the state),” Pulkrabek said. “We have not kept up with the growth Johnson County has realized.”
But opponent Jeff Cox contended in last week’s public forum the increase of county residents and the rise in jail population are not commensurate.
“Since the old jail was built, the population of Johnson County has grown by 50 percent, and the number of people incarcerated per night has grown by about 500 percent,” said Cox.
Jail challengers say there are causes of jail overcrowding that are largely ignored– over-arresting people for victimless crimes like public intoxication and possession of marijuana, the lack of effective jail alternative and deterrent programs, and socioeconomic disparities of arrestees that result in unnecessarily long jail stays for the county’s poor, for example– and the county should be putting money toward those issues instead of building a bigger jail.
“You have a slow upward slope of population, rapid upward slope of people in jail, and a steep upward slope of drug arrests. We have a failed war on drugs, which has done nothing to decrease drug use but has caused soaring incarceration rates, and it’s not just a national problem, it’s a local problem. It’s a matter of policing policy,” said Cox.
Pulkrabek disagrees that the county detains people unnecessarily.
“There might be some people arrested for victimless crimes, but they are not the ones that stay in jail.” Pulkrabek said. “This past Monday we had 125 people in jail and not a single one of them was there for possession of marijuana. We post our population online, so you can look and see what each individual is charged with. I challenge people to take a look and tell me how you believe (those persons are) not a danger to society or a flight risk,” Pulkrabek said.
Documentation of current county initiatives targeted toward treatment, jail alternatives and recidivism reduction can be found on the Johnson County website. However, the lack of space to conduct many of these programs, and the need to transport prisoners to other counties, has severely curtailed the county’s ability to offer them, Pulkrabek said.
“Social issues don’t resonate with some people in the county; some people think we should lock them up and throw away the key. But I don’t believe that, and I don’t think the majority of Johnson County believes that,” said Pulkrabek. “We want to secure them if they’re a danger to society, but while they are here, let us see if we can’t make some changes.”
Pulkrabek said in the past, volunteers have offered assistance to tutor prisoners in life skills like creating a resumé, filling out job applications, balancing a checkbook or obtaining their GEDs. “But we didn’t have meeting space, and if they were here very long, they were shipped out-of-county. If we can house them locally and address the needs properly, we can operate the way a county system should operate,” said Pulkrabek.
Opponent Bob Thompson said last week the county’s current attempts at keeping the jail population down need to be expanded, at very least. He suggested things like electronic monitoring of released prisoners, subsidized for those who can’t afford it; a facility for alcohol and drug diversion from arrests to reduce misdemeanor cases; housing facilities for the alcoholic homeless; and contributing county funds to the Department of Correctional Services for services like an intensive pre-trial supervision program that provides rehabilitation, counseling, and mental health assistance, classes or supervised community service programs as alternatives to incarceration, among other ideas.
In addition to searching for jail alternatives, opponents say county officials are ignoring the obvious racial disparities seen in the jail population. Although only about six percent of Johnson County residents are black, black people make up roughly 40 percent of those incarcerated and can be held up to four times longer. It’s an issue that Pulkrabek said has been worked on for quite some time, but the focus has been assisting juvenile offenders because that’s where the most impact can be made. That effort isn’t necessarily reflected in data on adult offenders, he said.
Further, said No New Jail member Aleksey Gurtovoy, problems with the current jail and the need for improvements to the 111-year old Johnson County Courthouse are two separate issues that should be addressed as such.
Supporters say the courthouse is unsafe since there is no way to separate prisoners making court appearances from the general public, witnesses, students who attend court hearings for college classes, and victims themselves. Also, there is no private space for attorneys to meet with their clients out of the public’s earshot. Finally, Pulkrabek noted, current courtrooms are not friendly to the elderly or handicapped-accessible, which keeps jurors in wheelchairs separated from their fellow jurors, for example.
Gurtovoy said while there is a demonstrated need for courthouse updates, many of Pulkrabek’s comments are just fear mongering.
“They are overblown,” Gurtovoy said. “I think the majority of what has been brought up are false security and safety claims. There are other options there.”
Gurtovoy believes that at least the people he has spoken with would likely support public funding of both new and expanded jail alternative programs as well as the less controversial need for improvements to the aging courthouse.
If the referendum fails again May 7, jail opponents have indicated they will look toward addressing the real problems of jail overcrowding.
“I think we can do something about over-incarceration and racial disparities, but we have to have a conversation,” said Cox. “If we build a bigger jail, that conversation is not going to happen. The upward slope will just continue.”
Pulkrabek said defeating the referendum won’t bring anyone closer to their goals. Jail alternatives only slow the need for additional jail space, but the county and its jail population will continue to grow. Those alternatives also have funding and space needs, and cannot be seen as a means of reducing operating expenses, he maintains.
“A protest vote, a no vote, is not going to do anything to change who’s in jail,” he said. “Not building it because you don’t want to fill it is not going to change that.”
• Audio from the January 29 Board of Supervisors’ public work session: http://www.johnson-county.com/auditor/min/Soniclear/2013_01_29_inf-audio%20(Jan-30-13%202-46-54%20PM)/index.html
• View the ACLU’s forum at: votenonewjail.org/forum
• John Neff’s website: www.jco-justice.com 
• No New Jail website: votenonewjail.org
• Yes for Justice website: jcjusticecenter.com
• Johnson County website: www.johnson-county.com/dept_blank.aspx?id=12299