IOWA CITY — The group meets Monday mornings in the Johnson County Attorney’s Office to see who they can try to get out of the county jail.
One would expect public defender Tom Woods and jail alternatives counselor Emily Hurst to be trying to secure an inmate’s release. But Lt. Kevin Bell of the jail and Assistant County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith?
“I’m the only prosecutor whose job it is to get people out of jail,” Zimmermann Smith said.
What they are doing is called case expediting, and on a recent Monday they went through a list of 133 inmates booked in the 92-bed jail to see who could be moved through the legal system faster.
Justice center debate
It’s one of the so-called jail diversion programs the local criminal justice community is touting in the run-up to a May 7 special election on a $43.5 million bond issue to build a criminal justice center.
The justice center would have court space and a new 195-bed jail. It’s that latter function that has drawn the most attention, with critics of the proposal saying too many people are arrested, minorities are jailed at disproportionately higher rates and the justice center proposal is too expensive.
A public vote on a bond issue failed last November, and recently county officials have begun citing jail diversion programs as examples of how they seek alternatives to keeping some people behind bars.
Examples include case expediting, mental-health programs, substance abuse treatment, drug court, a program for first-time marijuana offenders, one aimed at people caught driving with suspended licenses and others.
In the case-expediting meeting, four potential candidates were identified. In a typical example, a man was arrested for drunken driving but skipped a pretrial conference. He already had served the minimum sentence, and his next hearing could be more than a month out, so getting a written guilty plea and releasing him from jail may serve everyone best, Zimmermann Smith said.
Another three inmates had mental health needs the group thought were best addressed outside of jail.
A judge must sign off on any deals.
These programs are tied to the justice center, supporters of the project said, because there is not enough space in the jail to fully implement them. The jail was designed for 46 inmates, is now double-bunked to fit 92 and between 120 and 150 people have been in custody on most days in recent weeks.
Critics speak out
Justice center critics are not sold, however.
Jeff Cox, a University of Iowa professor who has campaigned against the justice center, said he’d support more space for jail alternative programs and the expansion of court facilities. But he believes something closer to 150 jail beds, not the 195 proposed, is the appropriate number.
“They’re using (jail alternatives) as a kind of Trojan horse to expand the number of people incarcerated,” he said.
Robert Rigg, director of the Drake University Law School’s Criminal Defense Program, also cautioned against a bigger jail, but he said diversion programs are good for inmates.
He said that’s especially true for inmates with mental health issues, which is a subject he’s writing a scholarly article on.
“You don’t want individuals who really aren’t a risk to themselves or to others being incarcerated any longer than you absolutely have to,” he said. “You want to get them into treatment or a program.”
Diversion programs help reduce the jail population, Rigg said. But on the mental health side, studies show they do not lower the recidivism rate because those inmates often are dealing with chronic issues and eventually re-offend after leaving the program, he said.
He also said boosting the programs aimed at keeping people out of jail may be a better option than building a larger jail.
“If your concern is diversion programs, I think you should focus on those first, because if you have jail space, the inclination is to fill it up,” he said.
Johnson County officials say for one, jail overcrowding causes dozens of inmates to be held out of county and away from the programs. Also, they say, there's not room for more programs and expanding the jail is not an option.
“I may be meeting with an inmate who’s suicidal and is freaking out, and they’re doing depositions on the other side” of the wall that can be heard, said Hurst, the county jail alternatives counselor.
Programs are working
The programs are making a difference, supporters said. Case expediting, for example, started in fall 2011. The average daily jail population was six inmates lower in fiscal year 2012 compared with 2011, translating into 2,227 fewer bed dates and a savings of $158,082 that year, according to numbers provided by the county.
The mental health program, which includes referral to treatment services, has potentially saved 23,829 jail beds and $1.7 million since it started in 2005, the county said.
One of the main criticisms of justice center opponents is that student arrests are too high, especially for drinking and drug offenses, and having a record hurts their job prospects.
Iowa City defense attorney Mark Thompson often represents students, and he backed the jail diversion programs and the justice center proposal.
He said he’s had up to 100 clients go through a drinking diversion program that is no longer active and another one for first-time marijuana offenders.
In the first two years of the marijuana program, which started in July 2010, 212 of 300 enrollees had successfully completed it, according to the county.
While the arrest remains a public record, Thompson said his clients would rather complete an educational program than pay a fine or spend more time in jail.
He also said he doesn’t feel his clients are getting off easy.
“I can’t say that anybody’s really avoiding justice there, because it is reserved for someone who it’s the first time they’ve ever been in trouble,” Thompson said.
Defense attorneys and county officials declined to refer to The Gazette people who have gone through a diversion program, saying publicity would not help those people.
Good for community
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he believes the programs are good not only for inmates but also for the community by reducing the jail population and getting people treatment.
“To take a look at trying to see if there is someone else that is lingering in jail, that if there’s another way to get them out, I think is important,” he said. “It shows the public that we’re doing everything we can.”
Pulkrabek also said he thought Johnson County was doing more with diversion programs than anywhere else in Iowa.
That is not something the Iowa Judicial Branch tracks, but Rigg, the Drake professor, believes Pulkrabek may be right.
Martha Hampel of Iowa City, who is one of the leaders on the anti-justice center side, said she thought the jail diversion programs were fantastic, but she does not believe a new facility is necessary to do them.
She said alternatives could be found, like renting space, and voting down the justice center bond would force the county to think outside the box.
“I think they’re literally stuck in this giant box that is the proposed justice center,” Hampel said.County officials said they are committed to continuing the programs no matter what happens May 7. But a justice center could allow for more mental health and substance abuse treatment in the jail and possibly the teaching of life skills to try to help keep people from returning to jail, said Jessica Peckover, the county’s jail alternatives coordinator.