Johnson County officials say justice-center battle is not over


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Though local voters didn’t approve the proposed Johnson County justice center Tuesday night, county officials and community members are debating how to move forward.

The Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee met Wednesday night to discuss how to move forward following the center’s failure to gain approval among voters. The referendum needed 60 percent of the vote to pass, but only received 56 percent.

Chairman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors Rod Sullivan said he was pleased by the voter turnout, and he remains optimistic that, with minor changes, a justice center is in Iowa City’s future.

“The president of the United States didn’t even get 57 percent [approval],” he said. “I don’t want to get too far away from something 57 percent of the population liked.”

Panel members addressed concerns about fears of the high construction costs and a potential increase in racial targeting for arrests. Officials said they would bring the concerns back to their subcommittees to discuss possible solutions.

Some committee members suggested continuing outreach efforts to educate the public on the urgency for the need of more jail space. Other committee members advocated re-examining the plans more critically for ways to significantly drive down the cost.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he thinks advocates have done all they can to educate the public.

“It’s difficult to reach that many voters. I’m not sure how to reach them,” he said.

In response, Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said that is why more changes should occur.

“If we did everything we thought we should do [to inform voters], then the current proposal needs to change,” Neuzil said.

Many community members spoke out at the meeting saying that arresting more people won’t solve problems. Sean Curtin of VoteNoOnNewJail.org strongly denounced the justice-center proposal and accused the committee members of only focusing on what they want, and not the community.

“This will never pass,” he said. “I will personally see to it.”

Community member Amanda Murphy said she felt city officials are avoiding larger social issues.
“I feel like this is a Band-Aid,” she said.

Murphy and Curtin both spoke out against nonviolent crimes being cause for arrests, such as drug possession. Committee members said it is a misconception that jails are full of drug and alcohol charges and extended an olive branch to encourage community participation.

“Help me understand how we get past the idea that minor drug offenses are taking up jail beds, because they’re simply not,” Pulkrabek said.

The committee invited local citizens to give them their contact information and to be a part of the revision process. 

Despite opposition committee members fully intend to move forward with the justice center proposal in one form or another.

“We need more space, period,” said Supervisor Janelle Rettig. “It’s inhumane the way we’ve double-bunked it and take away all [the inmates’] public space.”

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