'Justice Center' brings the New Jim Crow to Johnson County

Jeff Cox, 4 October 2012  •  Comments

When Michelle Alexander’s "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" was published last year, it was discussed widely in Iowa City.

Alexander’s title pretty much says it all. The Land of the Free now is the world’s largest prison, with an incarceration rate that exceeds the most repressive regimes in the world, including China and Russia.

The increase in incarceration is driven largely by our out of control war on drugs and the victims are overwhelmingly black.

With 12 percent of the U.S. population, blacks constitute 45 percent of American prisoners.

Perhaps worst of all are the long term effects of the New Jim Crow: one in three adult U.S. black males carries the life-long stigma of a felony conviction.

For the last several months, Johnson County has been carrying on its own discussion about incarceration. Community leaders of all stripes have united behind a proposal to build a new Justice Center which includes, among other things, a large expansion of jail capacity.

Our colorblind community leaders — and the journalists who cover them — have conducted this conversation without mentioning race.

The new Justice Center is a plan to jail more people. That is what "The New Jim Crow" is all about — the growth of incarceration.

Perhaps before jumping headlong into a large expansion of jail capacity, Iowa City liberals should consider some facts that have been conveniently downplayed in public discussion of the jail.

The current Johnson County jail has as capacity of 96. The average number of people in custody on any given night is roughly 160, requiring the sheriff to send prisoners to neighboring counties, which all have excess capacity because of jail overbuilding.

The new "Justice Center" will have a capacity of 243 — a 50 percent growth in the number of people incarcerated.

Although Johnson County is roughly 5 percent black, in 2011 of the 160 incarcerated on an average night, roughly 40 percent were black, an average that has remained consistent over several years.

In 2010, black youth made up 40 percent of juvenile arrests and 40 percent of juveniles placed in "secure detention." Instead of putting our property tax money into schools, we are building a new incarceration pipeline for young black people, many of whom will end up in the new jail.

Juvenile and adult arrest rates are going up in Johnson County. The argument that arresting people and taking them to jail does not contribute to jail overcrowding makes no sense.

In Iowa City, where marijuana is the overwhelming drug of choice, drug arrests by the Iowa City Police Department soared from 332 in 2007 to 626 in 2011. All of these people are taken to jail.

In 2009, the UI police arrest rates were 13 percent higher than those at Iowa State University, a school with roughly the same number of students.

Since then, the number of UI students charged with a crime has grown by 25 percent. Last time anyone counted, 17 percent of those receiving an undergraduate degree from Iowa had a criminal record, a stigma that they will carry with them all of their lives.

If the jail advocates are serious about improving conditions for current inmates, they should go back to the drawing board and design a Justice Center with a jail for 160 inmates, which is the current demand.

We should plan to incarcerate fewer people, not more, before we do even more preventable harm to the young people of our community. By planning for growth, they are planning to expand the New Jim Crow in Johnson County, making a mockery of our commitment to "equal justice under the law."

Jeff Cox is an editor of the Prairie Progressive, and a member of Citizens for Alternatives to a New Jail.