Justice Center flip-flop is a good thing

Jennifer Hemmingsen
Published: October 14 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:57 am in
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People can be reluctant to tax themselves for something big and expensive, like a jail, if they don’t see any benefits for themselves.

But Iowa City’s justice center opposition has included a faction with a different objection: They don’t want the county to put so many people in jail in the first place.

Maybe it’s because of the city’s heritage (See: Iowa City, People’s Republic of). Maybe it’s because our police arrest more than a city’s average share of young drunks (See University of Iowa, Parties).

The county’s jail and courthouse facilities are woeful. About 100 inmates are crammed into a jail space designed for half that many bodies; dozens more are shipped out daily to facilities in nearby counties.

The 100-plus-year-old courthouse has too few courtrooms, little meeting and storage space, and lacks modern security.

It’s up to voters to approve the $46.8 million bond issue that would greenlight construction of a 153,800-square-foot justice center that would address all those inadequacies.

Still, a number of folks here have long opposed building a new justice center because they think it only encourages a system that already puts too many people behind bars, and which disproportionately punishes poor folks and people of color.

Their ideological objections had the very real effect of helping to tank the last jail referendum more than a decade ago. Officials aren’t taking any chances this time, holding forums and offering tours of current facilities to help voters understand the need.

It seems they’ve changed at least one mind: Respected blogger and super-lefty John Deeth did an about-face on the issue just over a week ago, making what he called the “biggest liberal flip-flop since Birkenstocks were invented” — urging his fellow former “no” voters to do the same.

Voting against the justice center means endangering improvements that will protect the rights of inmates to consult with attorneys in private, to visit with family and friends, to take part in programming and to have their day in court, he writes. It will help ensure the safety of jurors, victims, witnesses, the public and even the accused. He’s right.

Deeth’s change of heart could help give the justice center referendum the push it needs to pass this time — let’s hope it does.

The principled stance of symbolic “no” voters might cost those voters very little. But, as Deeth came to realize, it is county employees and jail inmates, as well as citizens who would access the courts, who will pay the price.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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