Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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August 10, 2008

Sullivan’s Salvos 8/12/08

Difficult to believe, but school begins in the ICCSD on Monday, August 18. Drive carefully!

Speaking of back to school, Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) is sponsoring their annual Little Red Schoolhouse drive.
Approximately 170 children of all ages should qualify for assistance this year, which means each of them is provided with a backpack, school supplies, socks and underwear. Eligible children need to have been either homeless within the last three months, living in transitional housing, or have been referred by the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, MECCA, or STAR.
Thirteen little red schoolhouses have been set up in the community to collect school supplies. Locations include: all U of I Community Credit Unions; Waterfront Hy Vee; Big K Mart; Hawkeye Harley Davidson; Old Capitol Mall; Sycamore Mall; Iowa City Public Library; New Pioneer Coop in Coralville; and Blimpies on Rochester Ave in Iowa City.
Please do your part to fill up those little red schoolhouses!

Congratulations to Clear Creek Amana on the opening of North Bend Elementary in North Liberty! CCA was in desperate need of a new elementary; I think you’ll find this facility to be just what the doctor ordered!

The Lone Tree Fall Festival runs this Saturday and Sunday, August 16 & 17. I urge you to join the fine folks of Lone Tree for what is always a good time!

I have not weighed in on jail issues in quite some time, so I thought I would offer my opinion on a few things.
First, some background: The current jail was built in 1981 to house 46 residents, which was inadequate from the start. It also was not built with sufficient footings to expand vertically. The surrounding land is a high priority for the UI, so it is not available. Double bunking allowed the jail to house 92 inmates, but it does so neither adequately nor comfortably. This move also cost the jail all available space for treatment, exercise, small groups, visitations, worship, and the like.
Fast forward to the present. The jail housed 7,000 people in 2007. The average daily population in 2007 was about 126. That means on an average day, 30-40 inmates get shipped to other counties. That led to $700,000 in expenses in 2007. So far in 2008, as many as 75 inmates have been housed outside; the cost this year is running about $100,000 per month. (Flooding at the Linn County Jail may cause this figure to go even higher.)
Other counties charge between $55 and $70 per day to house each prisoner. Add in transportation costs, and it runs roughly $75/day to house an inmate out of county. Interestingly, it also costs roughly $75/day to house inmates in our own jail. While exact figures are extremely difficult to nail down in either instance, it is clear that the costs are very close.
Problems exist with the current arrangements, however. First, transporting prisoners is a logistical nightmare. They need to appear in court frequently, and also have a right to visitors, which is hard if they are in Newton. That is another problem – some of the nearby jails are filling up. That means we are forced to transport many prisoners farther away - to Newton, for example. That adds a great deal to the cost. Secondly, there is not adequate room for exercise, study, religious services, or classes. These are all part of a humane and rehabilitative system for housing inmates. Finally, the current jail is also less than ideal for the deputies that work there; they are more at risk than we would like.
One of the clear messages from the failed 2000 referendum was that the public expected alternatives to incarceration. This is an area where Sheriff Pulkrabek and his staff have excelled. Most of the alternatives that could be used are already in place. The public has gotten what they asked for, and the results have been very positive. There are still a few more measures that can be taken, and I expect the County will institute those soon. Any additional alternatives would rest solely with the judiciary.
While positive, the results have not alleviated the overcrowding to the extent we had hoped. Alternatives eliminate an average of a few inmates per day, but when the average daily population is 126, that total is not a big enough impact to change the big picture. The biggest obstacle to more alternatives is, ironically, a lack of space.
The other related issue that must not be ignored is the courthouse. The courthouse is just as crowded as the jail, and courthouse overcrowding leads to inmates waiting for court dates, thereby spending more days in jail. In addition, there are serious security issues at the current courthouse. Obviously, the current facility is on the National Register of Historic Places, so it cannot be altered too dramatically. The architecture severely limits the ability to utilize the existing building.
This leads us to another issue. In order to build a state-of-the-art jail, with lots of room for future expansion, the Board would need to go out where there is some space. If we were to do that, however, we would be separating the jail and courthouse, which leads to several operational inefficiencies. It also might maroon people who are being released out in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, we could move both the jail and courthouse, building a single new facility. (Story County did just that.) But moving both the jail and courthouse out somewhere would likely lead to several attorney’s offices leaving downtown to be closer to the jail/courthouse. I am not exaggerating when I say this would be a devastating blow to downtown Iowa City. Deciding if the jail and courthouse remain in close proximity, and defining close proximity, is a very key issue.
The Board is currently considering 5-6 sites for new facilities. (The current jail site; the Federal Building lot south of the current Courthouse; the city block where the old A&P (now WSUI/KSUI) sits; the National Guard Armory building; 25 or so of the 155 acres at the County Poor Farm; and 20 acres of land at the intersection of old & new 218.)
The Board recently voted to purchase 3 old houses from the City of Iowa City that sit across Capitol Street from the current jail. This does NOT mean the Board has selected this as a future site; we felt it prudent to buy them while they were on the market, however.
The selection of a site will influence the operational costs; a building that is 1-2 stories with good lines of sight will cost less to staff than a four-story building. Building a jail separate from a courthouse will add transportation costs. While no decisions have been made, it seemed prudent to review all these sites for the cost of land acquisition, land development, and operations.
I view the jail situation as being similar to private home ownership. If the cost of renting exceeds the cost of a mortgage, you probably ought to consider buying. Obviously, there are other factors, but if trends continue, Johnson County is certainly getting close to paying more to house prisoners elsewhere than it might cost to build and operate a new facility. The key will be not just the cost of erecting a new building, but the costs of operating said building.
The Board is expecting a report from our consultant (the Durrant Group) on September 3. The Board and/or Durrant will be doing some sessions to get public feedback shortly after this report has been reviewed; I encourage everyone to attend!
As you can see, there are many variables to be considered. There are also plenty of people with plenty of opinions on this. Obviously, attorneys and law enforcement officers care what happens. So do social justice advocates. We are often reminded that the US leads the world in the percentage of people incarcerated, and that Iowa is among the very worst when it comes to disproportionate minority confinement. We need to do our part locally to ensure that only those people who are a threat to others are incarcerated. We have not only a financial obligation, but more importantly, a moral obligation to limit unnecessary jail stays.
Some would have you believe that jail overcrowding is the biggest crisis facing Johnson County. Others would have you believe that things are just fine. In my opinion, neither of those opinions is correct.
The bottom line is, most residents use neither the jail nor the courthouse. For most residents of Johnson County, the jail and courthouse are simply expenses. So any proposal to address the overcrowding at either or both buildings will simply have to focus on the costs. I think the public will be willing to build a facility if it saves money in the long run; I am not sure they will spend the money if it will cost more.
I need to do much more to engage the public on this complex topic. So what do you think? I would like to know!

DID YOU KNOW? Johnson County was founded in 1838, while Iowa was still a US territory.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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As always, feel free to contact me at 354-7199 or I look forward to serving you!



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