What’s next, now that Johnson County voters declined to approve a $46.8 million justice center?
County supervisors say they won’t give up — they’ve vowed to try again.
A few hours after the ballot measure came up a few percentage points shy of the 60 percent it needed to pass, they started talking about how and when to do it. The issue could come to a vote again in as little as six months, although it likely will be longer.
Meanwhile anti-justice center folks say that whenever it does come back they’ll be ready to defeat the proposal a third time, declaring that once people know more about the issue, they’ll surely vote their way. That might be true, if knowing more means being subjected to slippery statistics cited by a talking bear on a “vote no” website.
But in the months or years before the justice center issue comes back around, I wish, instead, we could have a more serious discussion about incarceration. The fact is, jail opponents aren’t wrong in saying that we put too many people in jail. That’s not a Johnson County thing, it’s a problem nationwide.
We put more people behind bars in the United States than any other country in the world. According to the non-profit Sentencing Project, there now are 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails. That’s a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. A number that puts Johnson County’s incarceration rates in perspective.
Our jails and prisons are at the bottom of the proverbial hill. The one you-know-what rolls down. And they are flooded. Look up the slope and there’s high school dropout rates that have been high and steady for decades, especially among certain ethnic and racial groups. There’s a broken mental health delivery system that lets adults with chronic conditions fall right through the cracks.
There’s the war on drugs and other get-tough legislation that’s easy to pass but ties judges’ hands when it comes to sentencing offenders. The halfway houses sitting empty because of political budget battles. And on and on and on.
It would be great if we could reduce incarceration rates just by voting against a county building project. Of course, it’s not that easy. If we want to reduce the number of people behind bars in Johnson County, in Iowa and the United States — and we should — we’ve got to work uphill.
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