Johnson County Jail population down, more space still needed

Sheriff: Jail alternatives are working but more space would have an even greater impact

The average daily population at the Johnson County Jail dropped 13.5 percent last year from 2010, contributing to hundreds of thousands in savings.

The new inmate statistics, released Tuesday in the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office annual report, come just weeks before taxpayers on May 7 are set to vote again on funding for a new criminal justice center. Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said the numbers show that jail alternatives are working and that more space would enable those efforts – like diversion and treatment programs – to have an even greater impact on individuals facing criminal charges in the county.

“I’m hoping that people will see that shipping inmates out of the county is a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” Pulkrabek said. “For us to continue to see a decline (in the jail population) is a good thing, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t need additional space for alternatives and to address the courthouse issues as well.”

The average daily population at the Johnson County Jail in 2010 was about 168, compared to 145 in 2012, according to the annual report. That decrease – resulting in a decline in overcrowding – is part of the reason the county paid $333,124 less in 2012 than in 2010 to house inmates outside the county.

The Muscatine County Jail, which has a contract to house Johnson County’s overcrowding population, also has helped the county’s pocketbook by handling one transport a day. In 2012, Muscatine County made 423 transports for Johnson County related to overcrowding, saving $19,699.

Thanks largely to Muscatine County, Johnson County’s overcrowding transports dropped 38 percent last year from 2011 and 62 percent since 2010. Johnson County’s total costs for mileage, labor and housing due to overflow needs came in at $996,848 in 2012, down 28 percent from 2010, according to the annual report.

Pulkrabek said the falling daily average population, along with the decrease in overcrowding and the cost savings, can in part be attributed to the county’s jail alternative programs and law enforcement’s awareness of the overcrowding issue.

“We have done everything possible that we can with the space we have to help get people out,” Pulkrabek said.  “The things we are doing are good for the taxpayers.”

Because jail bookings aren’t down significantly – 6,972 in 2012 compared with 7,043 in 2011 and 6,681 in 2010 – Pulkrabek said he doesn’t think the declines are due to fewer crimes being committed.

“It’s mainly the mental health diversion program and working with the defense bar and the prosecution and other stakeholders,” he said. “And it’s a fact of life that the local law enforcement community is well aware of the jail issue.”

The goal, Pulkrabek said, is to jail those who need to be kept off the streets and to find alternatives for those who don’t. And he stressed that even with last year’s drop in the inmate count, the county still is desperate for more space and for residents to pass a $43.5 million bond issue to help pay for a $46.2 million building to house a new jail and court space.

“We are still continuing to ship tax dollars out of the county and still separating inmates and making it more difficult for them to have access to legal counsel, to the courts and to their family,” Pulkrabek said.

Aleksey Gurtovoy, of Iowa City, is an opponent of the justice center and said Tuesday in response to the average daily population decline that it’s good news, but not good enough.

“It’s still a very disproportionate number as far as where it should be,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office so far has failed to show what contributes to the rise of fall of the jail population, Gurtovoy said, and that has him concerned that any decline is temporary.

“We don’t know if it’s going to continue,” he said. “It could be six times higher in three years.”

Other highlights from the 2012 Sheriff’s Office annual report include:

--- Drunken driving offenses dropped 21 percent from 210 in 2011 to 165 in 2012.

--- Theft offenses increased 76 percent from 86 in 2010 to 151 in 2012. Pulkrabek said that could be related to the higher gas prices and more people driving away from the pump without paying.

--- Burglaries decreased 45 percent from 122 in 2010 to 67 in 2012. Pulkrabek said that might be related to how deputies are reporting the crimes.

--- Calls for service increased 25 percent from 14,519 in 2010 to 18,160 in 2012.

--- Reserve deputies who volunteer for the Sheriff’s Office put in 4,710 hours, including 126 for traffic control and foot patrol to support two presidential visits and a visit from the first lady.

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