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Johnson County pays more than others for jail alternatives

BY AUDREY ROEN | DECEMBER 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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Some Iowa counties have similar jail alternative programs to Johnson County; however, they tend to pay less for their programs than Johnson County does.

County officials say the current number of inmates is the main cause of the higher cost, which the county hopes to solve with a new justice center. County residents will vote on a bond referendum in November 2012.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and other county officials agree current programs such as the Mid-Eastern Council for Chemical Abuse, the Health Division program, and the work-release program — which costs the county $169,000 annually — are good investments.

"Having the responsibility for 170 to 200 inmates with a jail originally designed for 46 is what is taxing the county," Pulkrabek said. "Jail alternatives are just smart programs to have in place when operating a jail."

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said his county is not focused on jail-alternative programs because Linn County's jail population is not as large as that of other counties. Linn County is the second biggest county in the state.

"Because we do not have any overcrowding issues, we do not have any jail-diversion programs, other than drug court, as established and administered through the court," Gardner said. 

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said his county does participate in some minor alternative programs, but they don't take up a large portion of the budget.

"Our county has drug court, mental-health court, and we partner with the Department of Corrections, 1st Judicial District on a jail-diversion program, but none of these would constitute a majority of our budget," Thompson said, noting that the programs cost approximately $50,000 annually.

Pottawattamie County has programs similar to Johnson County's, but they cost the county essentially nothing because they are all run by volunteers.

Deanna Axland, the head of Pottawattamie County inmate programs, said in addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, religious programs sponsored by local churches, and the ability for inmates to complete their GED in jail, programs are all run by volunteers, keeping costs low.

"All of our programs are volunteer, with the exception of public health, which is a public entity,"  Axland said.

The Pottawattamie Voluntary Labor Program also provides an income for the jail of roughly $1,200 a month from inmates paying $25 to $50 per night to stay in the jail while working for their jobs prior to jail or doing work for the community.

"We figure if we had to pay someone minimum wage to do what they are doing, it would cost us that much, so that's how we put the monetary value," Axland said.

With a new justice center, Pulkrabek plans to continue these programs and possibly create additional programs involving volunteers to save the county money.

"There many programs I would like to implement in a new center," he said. "The ones I have in mind would have negligible costs. One would be a program bringing in volunteers to teach life skills to inmates such as maintaining bank accounts and things like that."


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