Security questions raised for new JC Justice Center

BY AMY SKARNULIS | JULY 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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Although plans for the new Johnson County Justice Center have been unveiled, members of the community still have questions regarding security.

Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan and Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek held a presentation on Monday afternoon for senior citizens to voice their concerns about the potential project.

The overcrowded jail and the aging Courthouse continue to be primary areas of concern.

Sullivan said he believes the new facility is extremely important in many ways, including the safety of the deputies and prisoners.

"I think the [safety and security] of the deputies and prisoners are being compromised here," he said before the meeting. "We're sending them to places that do comply; we cannot comply with all of the [safety regulations and rules]."

Officials say Johnson County officials are concerned about shipping a number of inmates to other counties because the current facility cannot accommodate them. Constructing the Justice Center would keep the inmates and taxpayer dollars in Johnson County.

The construction of the Justice Center will be up for public vote in the November general election, and Pulkrabek said, if approved, the building that currently houses the jail will be sold. He thinks it could sell for around $5 million or $6 million.

The Board of Supervisors decided earlier this year to ask voters to bond $46.8 million of the estimated $48.1 million project, The Daily Iowan has previously reported.

In his presentation, Pulkrabek said security is a main concern with the current Courthouse. The safety of the people serving jury duty, lawyers, and deputies are all at risk because of the lack of security, he said.

"Think about the proximity of you as a juror with the people who commit horrible crimes," he said. "For a juror to be in proximity to someone who has committed something like murder is unnerving."

Some community members still had questions for Pulkrabek after his presentation.

Iowa City resident Bob Hibbs thought safety was a main concern and is happy the new Justice Center will have a screening processes at the entrance.

"I have had the unique experience of being called to Dubuque jury duty as well as in Johnson County, and the difference in security is remarkable," he said. "The fact of security in the [current] courtroom just begs for a solution."

Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, who has previously told the DI that he was opposed to the new Justice Center, agreed that security is a problem. He said the time is right to ask people to vote on this issue.

"Quite frankly, it's a disaster of liability waiting to happen," he said. "We're very, very fortunate that an extreme incident hasn't occurred in our community."

Pulkrabek said the Johnson County Jail was built to house 46 inmates; in the '90s, officials started double-bunking the rooms to hold 92 inmates.  However, in the last fiscal year, the jail saw an average of 156.2 inmates per day. 

He said the new Justice Center, estimated to cost around $48.1 million, will have a 243-bed jail along with an entrance similar to airport security. There will also be a secure bridge connection between the new building and the old Courthouse. The 153,800-square-foot space would be five stories high and would not block the view of the original Courthouse, which was built more than 100 years ago.

Pulkrabek said the Justice Center will ultimately save the county money because officials won't have to hire more employees to manage inmates.

"We actually believe that operationally we don't think we're going to have to hire any more staff to operate this new jail," he said. "We're still working on some numbers, but one of the things we will have to do is [hire] a nurse [and] couple people for the additional courthouse security."

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