Clad in inmate orange, using a phone to talk through soundproof glass at the Johnson County Jail, Marcus Abbott said he feels stuck in a cycle that seems impossible to break.
Abbott, 26, of Iowa City, has been arrested in Johnson County every year since 2004, according to court records, and he has additional arrests as a juvenile. He was charged with 20 crimes from 2007 to 2011, according to jail records, and he’s back behind bars now on suspicion of his third domestic assault.
“I honestly can’t say or pinpoint what the problem is,” Abbott told The Gazette.
Abbott is among 115 repeat offenders in Johnson County who have been charged with 20 or more crimes between 2007 and 2011. He also belongs to a group of 134 “frequent fliers” who’ve been arrested in Johnson County every year for the past five years.
Linn County’s list of recidivists is even longer, according to jail records reviewed by The Gazette. More than 950 people there have been charged with 20 or more crimes between 2007 and 2011. That includes Joseph F. Botello, 72, of Cedar Rapids, who was charged with 143 crimes in the five-year stretch.
Recidivists — repeat criminal offenders who have spent more than a few nights in jail — are a problem, according to local law enforcement officials and experts. Frequent fliers, on average, use a majority of a jail’s beds, and they can cost a county millions — especially inmates who don’t have the means to pay required room and board fees.
But, according to Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, the recidivism problem doesn’t have an easy fix. County and state agencies have tried treatment and diversion programs aimed at keeping frequent fliers from returning. But most potential solutions cost money.
“And the money for those programs has dried up,” Gardner said. “The easiest method right now is to arrest these people and bring them to jail and then let them go back out the door. And, for many people, the cycle never ends.”
Some inmates, including Abbott, say the criminal justice system can be especially difficult to escape for low-income repeat offenders. They struggle to pay court costs, fees and fines. Indigent offenders also might have a hard time finding a ride to court, landing them back in jail on failure to appear charges.
“If they don’t have transportation and they don’t have money to pay for court costs, I can see how it would be harder to stay out of the system,” Gardner said. “But I don’t know what the solution is.”
The Linn County Jail charges inmates convicted of a crime $60 a day to stay in the jail. Johnson County charges inmates a flat accommodations fee of between $40 and $80, depending on when they’re booked. Those fees are supposed to help cover the costs of housing inmates — $64.70 in Linn County and $75 to $80 a day in Johnson County. But many people don’t pay those fees, especially recidivists like Botello in Linn County.
“We know it’s a waste of time to try to get him to pay us,” Gardner said. “I assume we haven’t gotten much money out of him and others like him.”
The top 10 repeat offenders in Linn County logged between 79 and 143 charges in the past five years. Johnson County’s top 10 faced between 33 and 40 criminal charges in that span.
John Neff, University of Iowa professor emeritus who studies trends at the Johnson County Jail, found that recidivists in the 2011 budget year accounted for 82 percent of the bed space in the Johnson County Jail. He tallied the jail’s estimated annual cost to incarcerate persistent recidivists — those people who have been arrested in three or more years over a 10-year span — at $1.64 million to $1.75 million.
His analysis supports the theory that once a person gets into the system, it’s more difficult for them to escape. Recidivists, he said, are more likely to be arrested, held after an initial court appearance and have their sentences enhanced because they are repeat offenders.
And, he said, many of the jail’s recidivists also frequent the area’s emergency rooms.
“This is a sad story,” he said.
Abbott, who moved to Iowa from San Diego in 2000, said his first Johnson County arrest came at age 17 after he got into a fight on a basketball court.
“Apparently, when you get in a fight in Iowa, it’s called assault,” Abbott said.
Many of his offenses stem from lack of knowledge about the legal system, according to Abbott. The longest time he has spent behind bars was one year for his second assault conviction, and Abbott said he’s resolved to steer clear of the jail after he’s released for his most recent offense.
“I’m just gonna get my job back,” he said.
But inmates, including Abbott, have accused authorities of trying to keep them in the system to bring in revenue. Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek discounted that accusation.
“Every person in the County Jail costs taxpayers money,” he said.
And the inmates’ failure to pay their fees is just part of the problem, according to Pulkrabek.
“It’s always someone else’s fault,” he said. “It’s people not taking responsibility for their own actions.”
Top Linn County offenders from 2007 to 2011
Source: Linn County Jail
Top Johnson County offenders from 2007 to 2011
Source: Johnson County Jail
Facts about recidivism in Johnson and Linn counties:
Sources: Johnson, Linn County Sheriff’s Offices