By The Gazette Editorial Board
Walking in to the Johnson County Courthouse is like walking back in time. Jurors, witnesses and defendants have little room to wait for hearings in scant courtroom space. The only visible security comes from deputies assigned to keep the building safe.
But times have changed since the courthouse was built more than 100 years ago. The county has done what it can to make the building meet modern-day needs and a much larger population — patched-in improvements to make the building meet minimum accessibility requirements, stored files off-site and tried creative scheduling. But there’s no way around the fact: It’s past time for an upgrade.
The same is true down the hill, where jail inmates are crammed into cell blocks designed for half their number. Even then, dozens more must be shipped out to other counties — then back for court, then back again — all at an ongoing cost to Johnson County taxpayers that tops $1 million every year.
Those taxpayers have a decision to make Tuesday — whether or not to approve up to $46.8 million in bonds to build a new justice center that will address all the inadequacies in the current facilities as well as allow for future needs. Low interest rates are another reason to this project deserves a “yes” vote.
The Justice Center project would add courtrooms and administrative space. It would give easier access to people with disabilities. It would include modern security equipment to help ensure the safety of staff, witnesses and the public. It would include a 243-bed jail facility that would, finally, adequately meet the county’s needs. It would eliminate the need to ship inmates to other facilities, miles away, at taxpayer expense — far from attorneys, far from family, far from the courtrooms where they will be tried.
The jail expansion has easily been the most controversial part of the proposal. Some opponents argue that it’s too much money to spend. Others argue that building a new jail will only encourage law enforcement to lock more people up. They want to see fewer people behind bars.
These are concerns county officials have wrestled with for more than a decade at least, when the last jail bond referendum failed.
They have kept good records, used alternative sentencing methods and clearly shown that it’s not county policy, but more violators of public safety and state laws that leads to more inmates behind bars.
Rejecting an adequate jail facility won’t change that. It will only mean the county will have to continue to fill up jails in other counties with inmates they can’t house themselves.
Inaction isn’t an answer to voters’ concerns about cost and incarceration rates. It’s sticking our heads in the sand.
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