Johnson County ready to take justice center project to public

The $48 million project features 243 jail beds, the sheriff's office and six new courtrooms

A rendering of a draft design for a proposed criminal justice center in Johnson County. (Neumann Monson Architects)
A rendering of a draft design for a proposed criminal justice center in Johnson County. (Neumann Monson Architects)

IOWA CITY – After years of debate, discarded proposals and stops and starts, Johnson County finally has a plan for a criminal justice center.

Now comes the hard part: getting the OK from voters to fund the estimated $48.1 million project.

The county’s criminal justice coordinating committee received Wednesday the most detailed design yet of the facility, which is to include a new jail and court space built behind the existing county courthouse.

The pre-schematic design, as it’s called, has a five-level, 153,800-gross-square-foot building. It includes 243 jail beds, the sheriff’s office headquarters, six new courtrooms (plus three courtrooms in the current courthouse), the clerk of court’s office and court support space.

John Cain of Venture Architects out of Wisconsin, which worked on the project with Iowa City-based Neumann Monson Architects, said the project was ready to go before the public.

“You’ve got the basic pieces that you need for the referendum,” he said.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors has indicated it will put a $46.8 million bond referendum on the ballot in November. It would pay for the rest of the cost out of the county’s budget.

The project has been discussed for a decade and has included voters rejecting a bond issue for a new jail in 2000, discarded consultants and designs, disagreements over possible sites for the facility and, at times, intense infighting among the supervisors.

"I think the Board of Supervisors is to a point to let the people decide," supervisor Terrence Neuzil said.

County and criminal justice officials argue that the justice center is needed to resolve space and safety concerns at the current 92-bed jail and 111-year-old courthouse

The county has discussed selling the existing jail. The courthouse would be used as part of the justice center, and a secure bridge would connect the two buildings.

The new facility would be built into a hill behind the courthouse, so the top of the five-level structure would reach to about the second floor of the courthouse.

The design calls for the bottom half of the exterior, where the jail would be, to have a solid material similar to the courthouse. The upper section, where court space would be, is glass.

The design, which could be altered as it’s fine-tuned, was praised by members of the committee, which includes representatives from the county, law enforcement and court system.“I think it really honors the courthouse and frames it,” said district court judge Douglas Russell.

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