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Local group gauges public opinion on Justice Center

BY EMILY FRIESE | SEPTEMBER 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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The number of local elections that shot down a new justice center stands firmly at 2-0. With a public-interest survey in its second phase, there is a new opportunity to gain insight on the contentious topic.

The current Johnson County Jail was built in 1981 and holds 92 inmates. However, according to the jail population statistics, roughly 160 Johnson County residents at any given time need to be held in jail, but only a percentage stay in the Johnson County Jail. This in turn forces the county to spend close to $1.3 million yearly to send inmates to other county jails.

In Nov. 2012, Johnson County residents failed to pass a proposed bond referendum that would put $46.8 million into the construction of a new, 243-bed facility with six courtrooms. While 56 percent voted in approval, it failed to pass the 60 percent required supermajority.

In May, an updated $43.5 million bond referendum reduced the number of beds and courtroom space from the earlier proposal. Votes once again fell short of the supermajority, coming in at just 54 percent.

Survey 2.0: Design a Justice Center Online, is the second survey to be released by the Johnson County Justice Center interest group. It was posted on the Justice Center’s website earlier this month and will be taken offline on Sept. 30.  Anyone can log in and take the survey.

The first online survey, posted in August, asked the public what they wanted from a new Justice Center.

Greg Johnson, a volunteer with the Johnson County Justice Center group, said the design of the new survey is to identify possible solutions to the polarizing debate.

“We’ve talked about the problems; now, let’s talk about the solutions,” he said.

The recent survey asks members of the community to identify and design their “ideal” justice center and to post ideas regarding facility location, sustainability features, services, and staffing.

Aleksey Gurtovoy, a member of Vote No Justice Center, said while he respects what Johnson is trying to do with the survey, he feels the public should not be focusing so much on the physical building.

“There are issues in the criminal justice system that we think should be worked on before the county comes to the public and asks for money for a new one,” he said. “There are things that nobody really understands, like why our county jail population is three times what it should be … it doesn’t make sense to talk about the jail before we get our situation under control.”

Conversely, Johnson said problems within the criminal-justice system in the community must be addressed, such as worn-out courthouses, a lack of basic safety mechanisms, an outdated fire-protection system, and general accessibility issues.

“Our jail and courthouse are not legal,” he said. “They should shut it down, but it’s all we have. We can’t continue to bunk people in tiny rooms or ship people off.  At some point, the state may come and shut it down because it’s just not right.”

Johnson said he plans to share information from the survey in a written report with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors as well as the public once results are in.

Supervisor Pat Harney said while he does not recall receiving feedback from the first survey, the supervisors take public feedback very seriously.

“We’ve had listening posts where we went to different communities to get public opinion, but they aren’t highly attended,” he said. “It’s interesting that we aren’t getting the people to come listen and ask questions about this.”

And while there is no permanent plan to vote for a new Justice Center, Harney said they’re trying to get the ball rolling.

“We’ve been working on this since 2000,” he said. “We’re going to meet with law officials and garner more interest from the public. We’re moving it forward, but there is no date, place, or time yet. It could be a year from now.”


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