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Program to replace jail with education

BY SAM LANE | APRIL 16, 2010 7:30 AM

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People charged locally with minor alcohol or marijuana violations may soon have to spend time in the classroom rather than in jail.

A proposal by Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness will require individuals with first-time offenses for alcohol (public intoxication or PAULA) or marijuana (possession of 10 grams or fewer) to complete educational and treatment sessions instead of paying fines or serving jail time. Upon completion of the program, the charges would be dismissed.

Lyness said she hopes to start the program in July.

“It will really take a commitment,” she said. “It’s not just showing up at a court date, pleading guilty, paying a fine, and walking out.”

In addition to court fees, the program will cost defendants roughly $200 for the alcohol violations and $300 for marijuana violations.

With the recently approved 21-only ordinance set to take effect June 1, officials say the change will be beneficial to students.

“I think this program has the potential to improve the health and safety of our students,” said Tom Rocklin, the UI interim vice president for Student Services. “It’s substituting education for punishment.”

The University of Iowa has offered to provide the educational component of the program, he said.
Iowa City City Councilor Terry Dickens said the program will be a good way to combat a spike after the ordinance takes effect.

Dickens said he thinks students will be “testing the waters” after June 1.

“It think it’s not a bad idea,” he said. “If they make one mistake, it can be wiped out if there are no further problems.”

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he supports the program, but he is unsure if it will affect the increasingly overcrowded jail.

“It’s another alternative that forces someone to get treatment,” Pulkrabek said. “It forces them to be accountable. That’s what the idea of a jail is — holding someone accountable.”

In Iowa, a first-offense marijuana possession charge holds a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. Public-intoxication offenses hold variable fines and required court appearances, while PAULAs cost $330 in fines.

Other counties with college towns, such as Story County (Iowa State University), have installed similar programs.

Some UI students had mixed reactions to the plan.

“I think it’s a good idea because something you do for fun shouldn’t get you in trouble and haunt you for the rest of your life,” said freshman Madeline Osman.

UI sophomore Seth Mosbrucker said he thinks education is an appropriate approach, but the program could take away from students’ fear of getting caught.

“If you do the crime, you should do the time,” he said.

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