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Locals sound off on Johnson County Justice Center as election nears

BY NATHANIEL OTJEN | OCTOBER 02, 2012 6:30 AM

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Although no one spoke out publicly against the proposed Johnson County justice center at a forum Monday, the proposal for the $48.1 million center remains a contested issue.

A $46.8 million bond would fund the consgtruction of the proposed center. The jail in the facility would contain 243 beds with a pod design, creating a centralized area to maintain watch on the inmates.

The public will vote on the million bond on the November ballot.

“The whole plan behind the justice center is to deal with three issues — security, safety, and space,” Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness said. “I really have not heard a lot of the negative comments I expected to hear. I have been very impressed with the public response we have seen.”

The Facebook page “Oppose the Johnson County Jail” has gathered followers in the area, and it had 47 likes on its page as of Monday evening. Donald Baxter, who is in charge of the group, has worked for companies behind designing and building prisons and jails.

“I had to do something because I couldn’t see anyone else doing anything,” he said. “There is opposition to this in the community. We’re a really tiny group right now.”

UI Professor Jeffrey Cox, who opposes the center, said he wants to make people aware of what they might vote for.

“I think students need to know that if they vote for this justice center, then they’re getting a free ticket to jail,” he said.

However, the push behind the new center is rooted in needing a new facility to house more inmates because, officials say, the current facility doesn’t have enough space and is in poor condition.

“Last week, a judge used a [Courthouse] library because there wasn’t a courtroom available,” Lyness said.

The current jail was built in 1981, and it holds 92 inmates with an average of 160-170 inmates coming into the jail per day. Johnson County has been paying $1.3 million per year to send these inmates to other counties.

“The needs are just going to increase,” Lyness said.

The current jail has one staff member to 2.3 inmates; the new jail will have one projected staff member per every 5.5 to 8.5 inmates because of the centralized pod design.

The proposed Justice Center had an initial cost estimate of $70 million to $80 million.

“We really did try to look at how expensive it could be,” Lyness said. “We really have cut down considerably.”

Lyness believes the only reason to say “no” to the center would be the high cost associated with it.

However, both Cox and Baxter pointed out what they consider to be other flaws with the project.

“[The new center] will sit empty, or they will fill it up,” Cox said.

Baxter believes the push for a new center is through local government, not the actual need for a new facility.

“I’ve never met a sheriff who didn’t want a new jail,” Baxter said. “The people in jail are in for petty drug offenses — we don’t have a lot of violent crime in Johnson County. We can’t see ourselves as being remotely racist here.”

Yet Cox said he is in support of building a jail that will house the number of inmates it currently needs to hold — not any more.

“Regardless of what size jail they have — they will fill it,” Baxter said. “They are built to fill. There’s big money in this. They want the jobs, and the sheriff wants the facility.”


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