Jail, courthouse answers continue to elude Johnson County

Low attendance, lack of consensus at public meetings keeping officials from moving forward

(Brian Ray/The Gazette)
(Brian Ray/The Gazette)

There were two takeaways for Johnson County officials during recent meetings on what to do about the county’s jail and courthouse needs, and neither was especially encouraging to them.

First, the sessions – seven of them held in August plus a couple more recently – were poorly attended by the public.

Second, there was no consensus on a solution to space and security concerns at the jail and courthouse.

That was the feedback members of the county’s Board of Supervisors and the local law enforcement and legal community shared at a Wednesday meeting of the county’s criminal justice coordinating committee.

Even the small number of people who went to the public input sessions had little new to offer, supervisor Rod Sullivan said.

“In all honesty, I was a little disappointed in the number of, I’ll call them ‘new people,’ I heard from,” he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janelle Rettig said opinions were all over the board and she doubts there was even a simple majority in agreement on one plan.

The county has failed twice in the past year to get the necessary 60 percent of voters to approve a bond issue for a criminal justice center that would have included a new jail and expanded court space.

The current jail is overcrowded, and the county spends more than $1 million a year housing inmates elsewhere. The courthouse is 112 years old and officials say it also is lacking in space and has security concerns.

Opponents of the justice center plan have argued the proposed new jail was too big and the county needs to address what they consider high arrest rates in general and the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of racial minorities in particular.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said if any message came through at the recent meetings it was that people are more interested in addressing the court needs than those of the jail. He said the county has spent years studying the issue and a combined facility was the most cost-efficient option but now the county should reprioritize in light of the two failed votes.

“And ultimately, unfortunately, it’s going to cost us more in the end,” he said.

One idea that was discussed recently was a joint Iowa City-Johnson County law enforcement center because the Iowa City Police Department also says it needs more room. But Rettig downplayed that suggestion, saying it has been discussed before and has gone nowhere.

“It’s just an option,” she said. “It’s not one that necessarily has more support than other ideas that have been out there.”

Where the project goes from here is unclear. The supervisors, county attorney and sheriff are meeting Monday to discuss next steps.The members of the criminal justice coordinating said they would continue to meet, seek public input and analyze jail statistics.

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