Apply more jail-alternative policies throughout system


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About a half million dollars has been saved by alleviating jail overcrowding and bettering the community — and there's plenty of room for improvement.

With the persistent problems of overcrowding and cash-strapped governments, reforms to the jail system need to be considered sooner rather than later.

Positive strides have been made in recent years to improve the Johnson County correctional system. Local officials must take the lessons learned and apply them to as many policies as they can.
The recent efforts by Johnson County to divert mentally ill inmates to clinical settings is a logical step in the right direction, and it has led to the aforementioned benefits.

The primary goal of the jail-alternative program is to provide a better environment for those who are mentally ill and cure the root of the problem rather than neglecting it. Jailing the mentally ill while ignoring their needs can worsen their symptoms, so jailing these individuals only to let them out after their sentence is often counterintuitive — but it has also led to considerable monetary savings.

Since the beginning of the program, savings of nearly $500,000 have been realized, even after accounting for costs.

Many local officials have found the program to be beneficial in numerous regards. Even still, crowding continues to be a problem at the Johnson County Jail, and all levels of government are continually searching for room in their strapped budgets. Crime, of course, needs to be curtailed in Iowa City and throughout the United States.

So wouldn't it be commonsense to push other jail-alternative programs?

For example, it is not necessary to jail individuals for repeated alcohol offenses and low-level drug charges. Repeat offenders should be directed toward such initiatives as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for counseling.

There are current policies similar this in Johnson County, but those convicted are often incarcerated, as well. In order to deter crime, decrease crowding, and save money, treatment should be considered more often than punishment.

Republican Iowa caucus candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich agrees with the idea of prison reform for the mentally ill and low-level offenders. He is one of the best-known proponents of the Right on Crime initiative. While its tagline is "the conservative case for reform," it is a solution that should be a bipartisan agreement.

The "priority issues" listed on the Right On Crime website include over-criminalization, juvenile justice, substance abuse, and adult probation. All of these issues should be reassessed in Johnson County and across the United States.

Right On Crime and Gingrich endorsed correction reform in South Carolina in 2010. According to data collected by the South Carolina Department of Corrections, the state expects to save approximately $175 million in prison construction and more than $66 million in operating costs over the next five years.

Related policies in Texas have also been effective, says Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy and the director of Right on Crime. He said that moving mentally ill inmates from correctional facilities to institutions makes sense because they are better equipped with more secure facilities, restraints for the inmates, and better medical care.

"This has been a problem ever since the deinstitutionalization of inmates in the late-70s," he said. "Now, one-fourth of inmates in county correctional facilities are mentally ill and are there for minor offenses."

He viewed trespassing and public urination as "minor offenses," along with other misdemeanors they have little or no control over.

Moving mentally ill inmates to institutions opens opportunities for the offenders to reapply for federal such benefits as Medicare, Medicaid, or veterans' benefits — they lose those privileges when incarcerated, Levin said.

Other solutions he supported were supervised group homes and continual screenings and evaluations to determine the well being of an offender when released from the system.

In 2000, a $19 million bond issue went before Johnson County voters to be used for an expansion of the facilities, but it was turned down. A similar bond issue referendum is projected to go before the voters in 2012, requesting $39 million for a new justice center.

When the matter does come up, voters should take a serious look at the overcrowding in the jail and come to grips with the reality that a bigger facility is not necessarily the solution but rather a sensible policy on incarceration.

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