Letters to the Editor: Vote yes for the justice center

BY DI READERS | OCTOBER 31, 2012 6:30 AM

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I think by now I’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard arguments for and against Johnson County’s proposed justice center.

We’re all aware of the age of the Courthouse and problems that represents. If not, I’ll remind you — lack of accessibility for disabled persons, lack of courtrooms, lack of attorney/client meeting rooms, lack of office space for the county attorney, and serious safety concerns for the public … the list is endless.

We’re also aware of critical space concerns in our outdated jail. Everything in Johnson County has grown, except the jail capacity. And the problems because of that keep growing.

As a result, Johnson County taxpayers spend more than $1 million annually to house inmates in other counties. I wonder why we wouldn’t want to keep that money here to make our own improvements and pay our own employees, who spend their money here.

I was hired as a deputy sheriff in Johnson County in 1993 and worked in the jail for more than 10 years. I’d rather pay a small amount more myself and keep our millions of tax dollars here. To offset my share of the cost, I’ll skip a couple trips to the pizza shop each year.

I have nothing else to gain if the justice center passes, because I will have long since retired before it is built. I support the justice center and hope other Johnson County voters will also choose to have their tax dollars spent in Johnson County.

Doug Gwinn
Iowa City

I have been holding court in Johnson County for 24 years. During that time I have watched the county’s population swell and the court caseload balloon.

Johnson County continues to be one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Since the 2010 census, it has passed Black Hawk County as the fifth most populous county in Iowa. So I think it’s instructive to note two striking comparisons between Black Hawk and Johnson Counties when it comes to justice facilities.

First, Black Hawk County currently uses 14 courtrooms to address its caseload. Johnson County now has six; the proposed justice center would add a maximum of only three more courtrooms. Second, the Black Hawk County Jail was built to house 272 inmates, while Johnson County’s proposed justice center would house 243.

When I look at Johnson County’s present and long-term needs, in light of these comparisons, it’s clear the justice-center proposal is practical and modest.

Continuing to rely on our venerable, but outdated, Courthouse will lead to further delays in cases, continue county tax money being sent to other counties to house prisoners, and further compromise public safety.

Please keep these factors in mind when you case your votes.

Patrick R. Grady
chief judge, 6th Judicial District
Cedar Rapids

I have followed discussions about the proposed justice center, and my concern is why so many people are focused on problems they imagine about the project.

There are many important considerations and services a justice-center concept would offer, and those are being sidetracked in the process. Safety of the workers and anyone else entering our Courthouse or jail is of huge importance. But that seems not to matter for many citizens.

I formerly worked for the city of Atlanta as the director of Human Services before and during the 1996 Olympics. We also had decisions to make about a new jail and were concerned about the very real threat of terrorism. Thus, we built a jail larger than our population at the time indicated was necessary.

However, that enabled us provide services to a population of our city that this nation has ignored, and in fact, has left to suffer on the streets in great peril. I refer to people with mental-health problems, who are arrested and jailed due to behavior caused by lack of housing and access to medications they desperately need.

Even though Iowa City doesn’t have the extent of problems we faced in Atlanta, I believe any space in a new justice center that could be set aside, even on a temporary basis, to serve people with those needs would be justice for them. We could provide them with appropriate care and the ability to live their lives safely after time in under supervision in our jail.

Sue Ellen Crosslea
Iowa City

As a 24-year veteran sergeant of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, I offer unique perspectives on the current proposal to build a new justice center, including a new jail.

My first 11 years were spent as night-shift deputy in an already overcrowded jail. During that time, the jail was double-bunked to house 92 inmates, who were transported to and from an unsecured Courthouse. Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 inmates a year were processed in a space not even twice the size of an average home bathroom. They still are today.

The majority of my next 10 years were spent on the night-patrol division. In addition to protecting the community and arresting violent criminal offenders, I witnessed an ever-growing demographic change in Johnson County. Our rural communities expanded. North Liberty doubled in population; going from having no police force to having a full-time department of more than 20 officers. Police numbers in Iowa City and Coralville have also grown with the respective communities.

I have since returned to nights in the jail as a sergeant and to finish a master’s degree in education. The jail population has increased to the point of county tax dollars paying other facilities to regularly house 80 to 100 of our inmates. That’s also a safety issue.

Though I’m pursuing a second career, I have always personally tried to leave the Johnson County community better and safer than when I was hired. The community now can do the same by voting yes for the justice center.

Sgt. Phil Schintler

The current jail facility opened in 1981 and was designed to hold 46 inmates. Johnson County’s population at that time was around 82,000 people. It’s now 133,000.

In 1990, the sheriff doubled the number of beds available to 92, but this increase did not change the square-footage of the facility. The result has led to $1.3 million of annual, out-of-county spending, courtesy of Johnson County taxpayers, for the sole purpose of housing our inmates elsewhere.

The original bond referendum addressing this issue was overwhelmingly defeated in 2000. The problem has not gone away. 

Overcrowding presents very real safety concerns, not only for inmates and staff but also for the community as a whole. In addition to safety, there are logistical concerns related to coordinating inmate transportation from one county to another from both a housing and judicial appearance perspective.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and judicial system make every effort to keep offenders from reoffending. Unfortunately, we are unable to pursue many alternatives because our buildings simply do not allow our law enforcement and judicial personnel to facilitate more programs.

The problem is not isolated to the jail. The Courthouse is 111 years old, and the safety of the people inside this judicial hub is also of utmost concern. The bottom line is we must provide a safe work environment in order to ensure we are appropriately addressing the safety needs of our entire community.

Solve the problem now by voting yes.

Sgt. John Good

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