Point/Counterpoint: How to vote on the Johnson County Justice Center


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I’d like to use this space to answer some questions people have asked me about the proposed Johnson County justice center.

First, why do we need a new facility? The justice center is designed to provide more courtrooms and administrative space and to increase the size of the local jail. The existing courthouse is 111 years old, isn’t secure, and isn’t designed for people with disabilities. The new justice center would address some of these issues by allowing for proper screening using metal detectors and x-ray machines. The justice center also would contain a 243-bed jail to ensure that there is enough room to keep up with the growing size of Johnson County. Currently, the county jail population has anywhere from 130 to 200 inmates, but we don’t have room to house them. We have to rent space in other jails at a rate of $1.1 million to $1.3 million per year. The new jail will allow us to operate a more efficient facility, using almost exactly the same staff we currently have without having to rent space from other counties.

Second, why not just rent the space, instead of building here? Even if renting space weren’t so expensive, there are other humanitarian issues that come into play. People who commit serious offenses and then are unable to make bond are often of lesser means, and their families aren’t in a position to be able to help them out.

Finally, if we have the extra space, won’t we use it to arrest more people, including a disproportionate number of minorities? Because there’s so much space in jails outside the county, we currently have no problem finding places to house inmates, and that’s not how we make decisions about whom to incarcerate. From my perspective as sheriff, we only hold in jail those we’re required to by law: people the courts believe to be dangerous to other people or society or who pose a flight risk. In fiscal 2012, we booked 7,089 people into the jail, 1,649 (23.3 percent) of whom identified as black, 134 (1.9 percent) as other, and 5,306 (74.8 percent) as white. I suspect that if we included everyone arrested downtown for minor offenses but cited and released, that would drive that percentage of minorities down even further.

I hope you’ll flip your ballot and vote yes for the justice center.

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek
Iowa City resident


Deciding on how to vote on the new justice center was not a cut-and-dried issue for me. My concern was that the existing jail is in poor condition and increasingly inhumane and that local law enforcement was showing no signs of not trying to keep it constantly full. Shipping inmates to other jails is expensive and fiscally irresponsible.

In the end, however, I have decided to vote no on the new facility based on this simple fact — we do not need to keep filling the jail.

What we need to look at is the number of people we are putting in jail for victimless crimes. Drug- and alcohol-related crimes in which there is no violence, property damage or theft involved account for a large part of our jail population. As a city proud to be progress-minded, we need to rethink punishments for victimless crimes, if they are even necessary at all.

A large part of what law enforcement does is not a benefit to the community; it feeds an endless cycle of crime. We should consider alternatives to police for minor issues. Mediators and other assistants would prove far more helpful in many cases. We need to explore new policies together as a community to end the cycle that creates crime in the long run.

Let’s remodel the existing jail and discuss how we can create a more enlightened approach to social problems. It is the progressive and fiscally responsible thing to do. No new jail.

Joshua Scott Hotchkin
Iowa City resident

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