Pubdate: Tue, 18 Apr 2006
Source: Daily Iowan, The (IA Edu)
Copyright: 2006 The Daily Iowan


The tornado damage to the venerable Johnson County Courthouse did 
harm to a historic Iowa City structure but also added another reason 
for pursuing the proposed "justice center," which would incorporate a 
new courthouse and jail. While the courthouse should be restored and 
we support building a new facility, more creative options need to 
also be explored to solve the county's law-enforcement problem. 
Instead of hauling all offenders off to jail without regard for their 
crimes, Johnson County officials should seek more appropriate solutions.

There can be no question the current court and jail facilities are 
inadequate. The 92-bed jail is not large enough to house all its 
prisoners; our county has been forced to ship extra inmates to other 
facilities, such as Linn County jail, paying $65 per head. For its 
part, the courthouse is too old to accommodate critical security 
measures, including metal detectors. Someone with a knife or gun 
could easily evade security in the current courthouse. A new, modern 
courthouse and a sustainable long-term solution to the prison 
population problem are critical to the safety and effectiveness of 
Johnson County law enforcement.

In their zeal to avoid appearing "soft on crime," many opposed to new 
facilities deny overcrowding is a serious problem. But not only are 
packed jails less than ideal for the inmates, they create a dangerous 
situation for the employees. Prisoners who are packed in like 
sardines are more difficult to safely manage. By resisting funding 
for prisons, opponents aren't being tough on criminals - they're 
being tough on law-enforcement workers.

But officials do not only need a new facility - they need new ideas: 
The county's sentencing priorities should be reworked. Instead of 
being thrown in with the general prison populace, people picked up 
for public intoxication should be put in a detox center. They could 
be monitored and, if necessary, treated by trained staff while they 
sleep it off. By taking a less punitive attitude toward these 
nonviolent offenders, the county will actually be putting less stress 
on the prison system.

In 2000, residents rejected a bond issue for a new jail, and the 
problem has only worsened since. This shortsightedness is false 
economy: Investing in a new justice center now will end the need to 
rent Linn County's jail space and curtail law-enforcement costs that 
are spiraling out of control.

Capt. Gary Foster, the chief deputy for Story County - home of Iowa 
State University and Ames - told The Daily Iowan that he "can't 
imagine" law enforcement running a detox center for intoxicated 
people. So far, Johnson County has displayed a similar lack of 
creative vision. Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek has proposed many sensible 
alternatives for sentencing of drug and alcohol offenses - only to 
have them shot down. Johnson County should be investing in a new 
justice center, but, more importantly, it should be investing in a 
new kind of thinking about criminal justice.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman