New Johnson County courthouse planned for space, security


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The long-awaited plans to build a new justice center for Johnson County are finally underway.

And Courthouse officials said the plans for a center are necessary as they continue battling overcrowding and safety problems in the 108-year-old structure.

“There’s no way of making the present Courthouse secure,” said Pat Harney, the chairman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. “This space is just inadequate for all these mingling jurors and other individuals who need to be kept separate. There are no real quarters for judges, either.”

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee set a maximum request of a $39 million bond at its Wednesday meeting. Harney said this includes construction of a new justice center as well as renovations on the Courthouse.

The new structure, which would probably be located on the block south of the Courthouse, would allow installation of a better security system and safer transfer of the inmates, said Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness.

“We’re out of room in the Courthouse,” she said.

Harney said officials have been discussing an expansion for around 10 or 12 years.

In April, the supervisors voted unanimously to approve the purchase of 514 and 520 S. Capitol St. and 4 E. Prentiss St. for nearly $1.1 million for the new center.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he’s glad to see the plans finally underway following Wednesday’s meeting.

“Johnson County has grown to be the fourth most populous county in the state, and yet, we have the 15th largest jail in the state,” Pulkrabek said.

Because of lack of space in the jail, inmates are transported to other counties. The jail size has not kept up with the growth of the county population, having been built for 46 inmates, Pulrabek said.

Upwards of 210 inmates would need to be housed in the jail on an average day, but the facility can only handle up to 92, he said.

“We’ve been transporting prisoners around the state, and we spend about $1.2 million to $1.3 million on that annually,” Harney said.

The problem, however, does not just lie with the lack of space for inmates. The main complaint about the Courthouse is in the inability to provide adequate security.

“It just was not designed for our needs today,” said David Kempf, the Johnson County facilities manager.

County officials had considered buying University of Iowa parking lot property north of the jail for the justice center in 2006. But UI officials wanted the property for future university expansion.

And despite having property for a new center, officials are continuing renovations on the old Courthouse.

The project to update the Courthouse started in the late summer and early fall of last year. The limestone steps are being evened out for aesthetics and safety and to provide better accessibility to the building, Lyness said.

But officials are still set on completing the justice center.

“This is something that’s a longtime overdue for Johnson County,” Harney said.

The vote for the plan is projected to be held in fall of 2012, potentially in late August or even as part of the general elections in November.

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