Johnson County Justice Center Fails to Get Enough Support

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Twelve years after slamming the door on a proposal for a new Johnson County jail, voters on Tuesday rejected a more ambitious project that would have included a jail and court space.

Supporters of the so-called criminal justice center, led by county officials and representatives from the legal community, said Tuesday night they were not sure what their next step would be because they had focused their efforts on the $46.8 million bond issue on Tuesday's ballot.

But Board of Supervisors Chairman Rod Sullivan and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said they'd like to see it sent to voters again with little or no changes. Sixty percent approval was needed for the measure to pass, and it got 56 percent.

"A majority believes in the plan, and I think we should stay the course," Sullivan said.

The proposal called for a building connected to the current county courthouse with a 243-bed jail, new courtrooms and court-related office space. The estimated cost was $48.1 million, with the county covering the amount above the bond issue.

The current jail holds 92 inmates, but the county averaged 156 inmates a day in fiscal year 2012. Overflow inmates are housed in other counties at a cost of more than $1 million a year.

The 111-year-old courthouse also is squeezed for space and officials say it has serious security issues of its own.

Opponents, though, said that a 243-bed jail was too large and would encourage more arrests for relatively minor offenses, that too many minorities and college students are jailed now and that the justice center was too expensive.

Those first two issues appealed to progressives and students, while Republicans took note of the cost, making for strange bedfellows among opponents, said Aleksey Gurtovoy of Iowa City, one of the leading critics of the justice center.

"There were a diverse number of reasons to oppose this," he said.

Another opponent, Jeff Cox of Iowa City, said he believed there was a need for a new jail, but one smaller than 243 beds. He said he hoped Tuesday's results would lead to a community conversation about the racial disparity of inmates.

A bond issue for a jail-only facility was opposed by 65 percent of voters in 2000. The justice center did much better than that on Tuesday.

"This project, I think, is a really, really good project, so I'd like to see it tried again, but I can't say for sure," said Pulkrabek, the sheriff.

Supporters will discuss next steps at a previously scheduled meeting of the county's criminal justice coordinating committee on Wednesday.

Election results are unofficial until the canvass of votes Nov. 14.
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