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Guest Opinion: Finding 'justice' locally

BY GUEST OPINION | NOVEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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On Election Day, and for the third time in less than two years, Johnson County residents rejected a multimillion-dollar annex for our historic courthouse.

While the “yes” campaign focused on creating new physical structures, the “no” campaigns have focused on criminal-justice reform, and our message carried the day.

So where do we go from here?

A large percentage of inmates in the Johnson County Jail are awaiting trial. But local bail-bond agencies have complained about excessive bond costs. Let’s make sure that even the poorest people in our jail can afford bail, in line with our constitutional principles.

A recent study from St. Ambrose University shows that Iowa City police ask to search blacks 3.5 times more often than whites. Iowa City’s new body cameras will currently be officer-controlled. Mandate that the cameras are constantly on to avoid racial profiling.

One in six University of Iowa students graduates with a criminal record. The Iowa City disorderly house ordinance has been labeled as unconstitutional by student legal advisers. Repeal the ordinance.

Poverty and homelessness are unfortunately tied to arrests. End the criminalization of homelessness by repealing the Iowa City ordinances that make lying down or storing personal items in public illegal.

The ACLU released a study that shows that blacks in Iowa get singled out for marijuana arrests, a civil-rights violation. Considering that blacks in Iowa are more than 8 times more likely to be arrested for pot than whites, it’s time to start to think of creative ways to wind down the failed war on marijuana in Johnson County.

Recently, it has come to light that local police have seized over $400,000 in cash without an arrest or conviction from citizens under a process called civil-asset forfeiture. These ill-gotten funds were used to acquire the county’s armored vehicle. Return the vehicle and end this practice for the restoration of the rule of law in our community.

Additionally, the fiscal side of these building proposals should be taken into account: a percentage of these no votes have been coming from residents who are sick of paying high taxes, despite their struggle to buy things like diapers for their growing families.

Indeed, the no coalition is more than 20,000 voters strong.

In fact, an increasingly powerful left-right coalition has been demanding reform in these areas for years — but action has been deferred.

The establishment has tried to build levies of irresponsibility on these matters, telling us that arrest practices and the jail population and log jams at the courthouse aren’t related.

Well, of course they are — and the voters agree.

This idea that all of these complex problems can be addressed by simply building a huge new building is naïve, to say the least.

Perceived security threats to the courthouse will be better addressed by adding new, dedicated courthouse deputies to provide human intelligence, instead of just “airport” (read TSA-style) “Security Theater.”

Storage of court records should be extended to offsite physical and/or electronic locations. New heating and air conditioning could be added to the courthouse. ADA compliant wheelchair access should also be added.

All of this can be done within operational budgets; any statements to the contrary should be viewed with healthy skepticism.

These historic gems require maintenance and conservation, not “condemnation.”

And as far as overcrowding in our jail goes, the recommendations we have made have been successfully implemented in other areas — let’s give them a try.

It’s time for the establishment to stop holding these vital reforms hostage.

The impetus is now on our leaders to do what they have repeatedly begged us for the ability to do: to lead.

They should move quickly, though, or else further interventions into their “well-laid plans” will be required.

Sean Curtin
Director of Free Johnson County


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