Johnson County justice center supporters, foes meet, but agreement elusive

Justice center plan may come before voters again in 2013

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Several of the most vocal critics of a jail and courthouse project in Johnson County are now participating in meetings held by supporters of the proposal.

That doesn't mean a coalition has formed, however.

“We are bringing ideas to the table, but they are being ignored,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy of Iowa City, one of the opponents of the so-called justice center.

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said the critics are raising issues that have been discussed in public meetings for years.

“They want to go back over a lot of the old information that we had put out," he said. "Of course it’s frustrating.”

The unusual association began right after the Nov. 6 election, when a $46.8 million bond referendum to fund a so-called criminal justice center failed to get enough voter support. The county’s criminal justice coordinating committee met Nov. 7 to discuss how it wanted to move forward, and people who worked against the justice center vote attended the public meeting.

At the committee's invitation, a few of them have since been regulars at the group’s subcommittee meetings.

Gurtovoy, 35, has been to a few of the meetings. He said opponents hoped that they could influence what happens next with the project but quickly felt that would not happen. They’ve continued attending meetings so that, with the funding plan likely going up for another public vote, they can say they gave a good-faith effort to compromise.

The ideas mentioned by Gurtovoy include building a new county jail separate from the courthouse, having fewer jail beds than is proposed, lowering the cost of the project and examining incarceration rates.

Some of those go against the basic criteria county officials set for a justice center. The plan the county's Board of Supervisors put before voters called for a new building connected to the courthouse with a 243-bed jail, new courtrooms and office space.

The current 92-bed jail is constantly overcrowded and county officials have said 243 beds would serve the county into the coming decades. Pulkrabek said he would consider coming down to 200 beds as long as expansion is possible, but he would not support anything less.

County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said he’d like a revised project that is several million dollars cheaper and has fewer jail beds. But the county hired a consultant and spent a couple of years studying the best site for justice center, so the location is nonnegotiable, he said.

Neuzil and other county officials also have said they’d like to examine why minorities are disproportionately arrested and jailed in Johnson County, although that is a trend found nationally.

Pulkrabek said some of the opponents seem to be using the justice center plan as a platform to criticize the criminal justice system in general and drug laws in particular. He has said people arrested on drug offenses are typically released quickly and are not the cause of jail overcrowding.

Critic Martha Hampel of Iowa City, who has attended justice center meetings, said she and others believe too many people are jailed in America and voting against local issues like the justice center is a way to protest a national problem.

“So yeah, there is a part of our opposition that doesn’t know what else to do at this point except to oppose anything that will grow our prison system in this country,” she said.

Hampel, 31, said she would support a modest project involving the courthouse, which has accessibility and safety issues, but opponents are still trying to get a handle on the number of jail beds they think is appropriate.

County officials are considering putting the project back before voters in 2013. The bond issue needed 60 percent approval and received 56 percent in November, and the majority support has led some to say the project should not change much.

County Attorney Janet Lyness said it’s good to hear the opinions of people who voted against the project and she’d like the county to consider changes that could get it 60 percent support. But she still believes everything that was in the plan in November is needed.

“I don’t think there was any fluff in there at all,” she said.

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