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Editorial: Vote yes on courthouse annex

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 23, 2014 5:00 AM

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When we hear about crumbling infrastructure in the United States, we think about old, creaky bridges somewhere far away … not here of course. The courthouse in Iowa City is a beautiful building with plenty of history. One hundred and thirteen years of history to be exact.

Unfortunately, it was built for a different time.

At its inception, Johnson County was the home for approximately 30,000 residents. Today, that number has multiplied to approximately 140,000.  As can be imagined, the increase in population has a very real effect on public infrastructure.

Not being designed to process the magnitude of files, the Clerk of Court’s Office is often backed up. Johnson County’s lead prosecutor has even said there have been instances of defendants escaping through the back entrance, which has to remain unlocked because it is the only access to a restroom.

Previously proposed solutions included a jail large enough to house 195 beds as well as extra court space. The price tag for these projects was $43 million, with a 60 percent vote required to begin construction. Three times the issue has been put to a vote, and three times county voters have shut it down.

Opponents of the project have had legitimate points. They argued that the jail was too large and the facility too expensive. There’s also a worry of an increased number of arrests if a new jail is built. These concerns helped propel the anti-justice center movement into mainstream discussion in Iowa City.

But there are tradeoffs. Sending inmates to other county jails, which is what the county currently does, comes with a cost of $1 million for taxpayers. In the long term, the costs of not restructuring the jail will still outweigh the short-term savings.

Desperately trying to receive at least something for the aging building, the courthouse annex has come back with a $33.4 million bond referendum. The new annex would be attached to the western hillside of the existing courthouse. Issues such as space and safety should be resolved with the new structure.  And most importantly: The county has scrapped the contentious jail upgrade.

All three current Johnson County Board of Supervisors candidates support the new courthouse annex, with Supervisor Janelle Rettig saying it should be the No. 1 priority.

Anyone who has ever had to go to the courthouse knows how serious the concerns are. Defendants say their families are seated right next to attorneys. Some officials have even raised concerns about the safety of the judges in court. This is unacceptable for our county.

It’s important to note that a “yes” vote for this annex isn’t a “no” vote for justice; the legal system isn’t changing. These are just requirements for the courthouse to function as it should.

The overcrowded conditions also mean that not only is the courthouse focused on safety and space issues, officials don’t have time to focus on innovation. Various diversion programs are crucial in trying to find ways to prevent prior offenders from ending up in jail again. Without the necessary staff, Johnson County will not be able to be a leader in these programs.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that it is time to stop bickering on this issue. Citizens, judges, attorneys, and other courthouse personnel deserve better than the conditions of the current facility. County officials have made plenty of concessions to their original plan. It’s time for Johnson County residents to do their part and vote yes on the courthouse-annex referendum.


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