Dieterle: Expand jail alternatives, not the jail

BY GUEST COLUMN | MAY 06, 2013 5:00 AM

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Proponents say we should build a bigger jail to federal standards in order to be able to reduce the numbers of inmates kept there. Using the expected $3 million gained from selling the old jail, that would include more than 190 beds, which can easily expand to 243. This is illogical. We need to reduce the numbers being kept there now, and then see what size jail we need.

Crime rates are falling in Iowa. Many of the persons now being kept long-term in the jail are too poor to bond out and are being held awaiting justice; many of these are black. They have been charged, not found guilty and sentenced. Capping the time spent in jail at eight weeks for those awaiting justice for misdemeanors and 26 weeks for felonies would greatly reduce jail population.

Iowa City police and University of Iowa police are responsible for the vast majority of arrests. Iowa City and Johnson County should subsidize the electronic monitoring program, like the ankle bracelet, so that it is an affordable alternative to jailing. Currently, prisoners must be able to afford to pay $20 per day. The pretrial release program, including release with supervision, should be expanded so that those charged only with victimless crimes are not kept in jail.

If more office space is needed to expand and administer jail-alternative programs, it should be rented immediately — not unavailable for approxiamately three years while it’s being built.

Drug arrests have risen disproportionately quickly; in fiscal 2012 most of them were for misdemeanor marijuana charges: possession, drug paraphernalia, failure to affix drug stamp, gathering for use of marijuana. In fiscal 2012, 612 people arrested for drugs were jailed for from one week to over 30 days.

These are victimless crimes. Marijuana is the illegal drug most commonly used locally, by all levels of society. Let’s accept the slogan of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML): “It’s normal to smoke marijuana.”

The Edward Byrne Grant provides a cash incentive for the local drug task force to aggressively pursue marijuana; the grant application must list the numbers of arrests and amounts seized — down to the least flake.  The city could pass an ordinance decriminalizing it by making possession an offense punishable by a citation and small fine, only. The county attorney could stop prosecuting marijuana offenses, so that law enforcement doesn’t bother with those charges.

Besides reducing jail population, the benefits of the measures listed here would include improvement in police-community relations and a reduction in racial disparities. Let’s change what we’re doing before we throw money into steel and concrete “to federal standards” (so we can fill those empty beds with federal prisoners?).

Caroline Dieterle
Daily Iowan archivist

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