Violent crimes, staffing cuts cause jail crowding


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Overcrowding at the Johnson County Jail may be due to an increase in the rate of violent crime, according to a study published late last month.

University of Iowa Professor Emeritus John Neff, the author of the study, found the jail population spiked several times between 1983 and 2011 at rates three to four times higher than the rate of the county's population increase.

While these intermittent spikes are a result of many mechanisms — the study mentions there are more than 20 — Neff says there are several that stand out.

"What we're doing is we're putting the same thousand people in jail over and over again," he said. "We know of one person who has been in and out of the jail for 26 years."

Neff also said the latest spike in jail population was partially attributable to an increase in the severity of crimes.

"What's happened in the last 10 years is we've added about 100 who are doing really serious stuff — armed robberies and violence," he said. "They're staying longer because these are much more serious offenses."

The study found, from fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2011, the number of inmates held in custody longer than a month almost tripled.

Even a small increase in the number of serious crimes committed can have a large effect on the jail population, Neff said.

"It doesn't take many arrests at that serious level," he said.

Another set of heavy contributors to the jail's overpopulation, he said, are recent cuts in government positions, especially at the Johnson County Courthouse.

"The state has cut back its staff pretty much across the board; anything involving a state agency is going to take longer," Neff said. "That's one of the reasons we're seeing delays in the courts."

The lack of court reporters — staffers who type transcripts of legal proceedings — is causing inmates to remain incarcerated before trial longer, he said.

"The limiting factor in getting a trial is the availability of a court reporter, whereas it used to be the availability of a judge," he said.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek agrees with Neff.

"The prime example is when you have a limited number of court reporters available, you're not able to operate each courtroom completely because of that," he said.

But Johnson County District Clerk of Court Lodema Berkley disagrees.

"I don't see that the cutback affected our associate[s] that much, as far as having trials," she said. "I have a very efficient staff, and they take pride in making sure things get done."

She maintains that her office is working at the same pace as usual.

"The crime is up, and they have increased the number of law enforcement but never increased the number of court personnel," she said. "If anything, they've reduced us."

Pulkrabek and Berkley can both agree with Neff's assertion of a recent increase in serious crime in Johnson County.

"The fact of the matter is that what's plugging up our jail is people that are here on serious crimes and [are being] held on bond," Pulkrabek said. "It's people charged with serious crimes, and there are more of them."

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