Justice Center, Episode II: Return of the jail

Aleksey Gurtovoy, 3 April 2013  •  Comments

On Nov. 6, 2012 the voters of Johnson County defeated a public measure to fund construction of a new jail in downtown Iowa City. Named in the best traditions of doublespeak, the so-called “Justice Center” proposal would have enabled erecting a monstrous jail/courthouse conglomerate right in the heart of the city, cost the taxpayers $48.1 million, and increased the total number of jail beds to 243 — a more than two-fold increase in capacity.

The proposal had the official endorsement of Johnson County Democrats and virtually everyone else in the establishment. It also was the subject of a full-blown, six-month-long marketing campaign (sponsored largely by local attorneys, with significant contributions from the county officials themselves) that included everything from yard signs, to “grassroot” postcards, to Facebook ads.

Despite that campaign, 44% of voters — Democrat and Republican, urban and rural, young and old — said "no" to the flawed proposal.

Johnson County voters usually are willing to give the necessary 60% of their votes for bond issues to build schools, libraries and recreation centers but not it appears for bigger jails.

Unfortunately, the voters’ message has fallen upon deaf ears.

At the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting one day after the election, comments were made by members of the committee that the 44% of voters that said “no” were simply “uneducated” or “misinformed”. Disappointment was expressed over how county government has been working on this project for fourteen years and yet, after failed votes in 2000 and 2012, county leaders were still baffled as to why they haven’t gotten their way.

One committee member went so far as to ask for some sort of survey to gauge public opinion on this issue. Such a survey of public opinion already has happened: it was called a general election. And it had a higher citizen participation rate than any public survey can ever hope to achieve.

Our votes only seem to count, however, when the outcome is what our elected officials have long desired. And because county officials didn’t get their way the second time around, there is going to be a third time.

The revised proposal? The same location and the “building envelope” as the last time, but with a slightly reduced price tag ($46.2 million) and initial capacity (195 beds) through shelling out two dormitories “for the time being”.

If this feels to you like essentially the same plan, it’s because it is.

Now, you have to give our leaders some credit for at least trying to appear like they addressed some of the opposition’s concerns. The new plan does include a section called “Additional actions”, promising that the board “will work on a multi‑year strategic plan on the County’s Jail Alternatives and diversion programs” and that it “remains concerned about disproportionate minority impact and will join with the County Attorney and area law enforcement agencies to research and work on these issues.”

That promise is so vague and noncommittal, however, that one would have to be extremely naive to think that it’s there for any other purpose than a blatant attempt to pacify the opposition — let alone count that anything is going to come out of it.

It’s also worth asking why it took two failed public referendums for officials who have been meeting together for 14 years to finally start working on a strategic plan to curb the uncontrolled, disproportionate growth of our jail population.

Meanwhile, the May 7th special election is nearing, and the propaganda machine is about to kick into full gear again.

So prepare yourselves for the storm of half-true and plainly false pro-jail statements from all sorts of Respectable Persons — statements that will be repeated ad-nauseum, in hope that, if they are said often enough, they will become true. Prepare to see yard signs, hear radio ads, and maybe even a TV interview or two.

But most importantly, prepare to go out on or before May 7 and vote — not down the party line, not as somebody tells you to — but as a thinking citizen that has a mind of his or her own.

Aleksey Gurtovoy