By Jim McCarragher
Johnson County’s 112-year-old historic courthouse and 30-year-old jail are outdated, and represent a threat to public safety, security and access to justice.
The $43.5 million bond referendum on May 7 would pay for a new, much-needed Justice Center that combines the Sheriff’s office, jail and court-related offices, all attached to the existing courthouse. This referendum also reflects a lower cost from the previous plan that almost passed last November.
When the courthouse was built more than a century ago, security was not a concern. Times have certainly changed. The most obvious security issues in our courthouse include:
l No secure entrance with security checkpoint protecting against people entering with weapons.
l No separate and secure entrance for deputies escorting criminal suspects.
l No way to separate inmates from general public, jurors, employees, judges and others.
The structure also was designed around antiquated safety standards for a population that was only a small fraction of what it is today. This creates obvious safety and space issues including hallways and back stairs too narrow to be safe in emergencies, no automated sprinkler system, only one entrance/exit accessible for people with disabilities, and a structure not meeting current building code regulations or Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
Opposition to this bond issue centers around the proposed capacity of the new jail, which comprises 34 percent of the total project cost. Built in 1981, the current jail has a different, but equally important set of concerns.
Separated from the courthouse, the jail was built for an inmate capacity of 46 and then later was modified to accommodate 92 by double-bunking. The building housing the jail was not designed to be expanded, yet the current average daily number of inmates ranges from 150 to 190. This overcrowding issue costs Johnson County taxpayers more than $1 million a year to house the overflow of inmates in jails in other counties. That price will only continue to rise as the population of one of the fastest-growing Iowa counties continues to increase.
Some opponents believe that our jail is overflowing because of inmates who represent no risk to society. Decide for yourself by checking the Jail Inmate Roster of current and recently discharged inmates at www.johnson-county.com. Bear in mind that most of the inmates have not yet appeared in court to face charges.
The crowded conditions, daily movement of inmates to and from the jail and other deficiencies increase the risk of potential harm to the public and law enforcement officers. The lack of space also impedes the ability of Johnson County to fully use its nine separate jail alternative programs. They are designed to assist those people arrested for committing crimes, through assessment, treatment, education and other assistance, and prevent them from reoffending.
The proposed Justice Center is designed to solve all of these critical safety, security, and space problems. Through additional public meetings and discussions with residents of Johnson County after the November vote that lost by 4 percent, the design has been updated to reduce the amount of the bond request from $46.8 million to $43.5 million. It reduces bed spaces from 243 to 195, new courtrooms from six to four, and changes the exterior of the building to incorporate more cost-effective (and eye-pleasing) masonry.
Our citizens deserve a courthouse that is secure, safe, structurally sound, able to meet special needs requirements, and has adequate space to provide the services our community expects. And, of course, we need a jail facility that meets federal and state requirements, while putting an end to streaming tax dollars from our community to other counties.
We should take advantage of financing this project at all-time low interest rates, rather than helping pay off another county’s debt.
This is the right time to do the right thing.
Jim McCarragher of Coralville, an attorney, is a member of the Yes for Justice group. Comments: email@example.com