By Lonny Pulkrabek
I’d like to answer some questions people have asked me about the proposed Johnson County Justice Center project.
1. Why do we need a new facility?
The Justice Center is designed to provide more courtrooms and administrative space and to increase the size of the local jail. The existing courthouse is 111 years old, isn’t secure, and isn’t designed for people with disabilities. The new Justice Center addresses some of these issues by allowing for proper screening using metal detectors and x-ray machines.
The Justice Center also would contain a 243-bed facility to ensure that there is enough room in the jail to keep up with the growing size of Johnson County. Currently, the county jail population has ranged anywhere from 130 to 200 inmates, but we don’t have room to house them. We have to rent space in other jails for $1.1 to $1.3 million per year. The new jail will allow us to operate a more efficient facility, using almost exactly the same staff we currently have, without having to rent space from other counties.
2. Why not just rent the space, instead of building here?
Muscatine County Sheriff Dave White would love for us to keep doing that — he’s on record saying how much he appreciates it. But even if renting space weren’t so expensive, there are other humanitarian issues that come into play.
People who commit serious offenses and then are unable to make bond are often of lesser means, and their families aren’t in a position to be able to help them out. When we send those inmates to other counties, their families can’t afford to visit them. They often work with public defenders, who don’t have the resources to frequently travel out of county to see them. So if we’re going to buy instead of rent, we need to do it now — interest rates are at historic lows. By voting for the Justice Center, we’re keeping our tax money local.
3. If we have the extra space, won’t we use it to arrest more people, including a disproportionate number of minorities?
Because there’s so much space in jails outside the county, we have no problem finding places to house inmates, and that’s not how we make decisions about who to incarcerate.
As for the disproportionate number of minorities, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness and I are very sensitive to this issue. From my perspective as sheriff, we only hold in jail those we’re required to by law: people the courts believe to be dangerous to other people or society, or who pose a flight risk.
In fiscal year 2012, we booked 7,089 people into the jail — 1,649 (23.3 percent) identified as black, 134 (1.9 percent) as other, and 5,306 (74.8 percent) as white. I suspect that if we included everyone arrested downtown for minor offenses but cited and released that would drive that percentage of minorities down even further.
I hope you’ll flip your ballot and vote “yes” for the Justice Center.
Lonny Pulkrabek of Iowa City is Johnson County sheriff. Comments: PulkrabekL@aol.com