November 8, 2012, 9:00 a.m. -- POST-ELECTION, BOND DEFEAT UPDATE:
The Johnson County Justice Center bond proposal on Tuesday's [Nov. 6] ballot went down to defeat. That is, although a majority (56%) of those voting on it voted "Yes," that was not enough to clear the 60% hurdle required by Iowa law.
So the County Supervisors and allied supporters of the proposal have been meeting to decide what to do next. Lee Hermiston, "Justice Center Group Plans Next Move; Deciding Whether to Go Back to Voters; Critics Vow Same Plan Will Not Pass," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 8, 2012, p. A1. [And see also, Gregg Hennigan, "Johnson County leaders discuss possibility of another justice center vote; Another vote would have to wait at least six months," The Gazette, November 8, 2012, p. A2; and Cassidy Riley, "Johnson County officials say justice-center battle is not over," The Daily Iowan, November 8, 2012, p. A1.]
As I commented on the online version of Lee Hermiston's story, "Many of the proposed Justice Center's opponents acknowledged that 'something' was needed, and that they'd support it. Many of the supporters had serious concerns. A chance to revisit these issues may prove to be the best outcome for Johnson County. Unlike Washington, compromise is a real possibility."
Some supporters are advocating physically pushing through the proposal in a subsequent vote just as soon as possible. Presumably, this means they would simply raise more money, to repeat their failed talking points with greater volume and quantity.
Frankly, I think this would be a mistake, whether opponents prove to be right or wrong in their prediction that, "This will not pass, I guarantee you" (as Hermiston quoted Sean Curtin). The comments from both supporters and opponents have left a lot of possibilities for compromise on the table. Johnson County citizens have a substantial reservoir of civility and compromise that this exercise in democracy could draw upon -- to everyone's credit.
Supervisor Terrence Neuzil thinks "the proposed center [could] use some changes." He's said, "I’m not interested in putting the same proposal in front of the voters that just voted it down." Hermiston also reports, "[S]upervisor Janelle Rettig said some issues still need to be addressed, such as the racial disparity of those who stay in jail for longer than a week;" and that "[Johnson County Attorney Janet] Lyness . . . suggested that members of the opposition be involved with those [future] discussions" of the committee of supporters.
These folks are setting the right tone and strategy. Otherwise it's going to reek of the City Council's recent effort to cut the public out entirely on a bond vote regarding grants of taxpayers' money, not for a public, traditional governmental project (such as jails), but for a private entrepreneur's profit-making venture.
There is no need here to outsource our design and decision to expensive out-of-town consultants, meaningless surveys, and endless discussions that never reach conclusions -- except an agreement to have yet another discussion. We can work this out.
I would make one more very specific suggestion that seemed to work for the School Board when creating its somewhat contentious governance policies. Come up with one person who is willing to do the writing, someone who either voted "No," but sees the need for some improvement, or someone who voted "Yes," but sees real problems with the failed proposal -- or possibly one of each. Task them with coming up with, first, as complete, factually accurate, and neutral a paper as they can create putting forth every one of the advocates' assertions for, and opponents' assertions against, the current proposal. Second, have he/she/them work -- separately -- with selected groups of supporters and opponents whose job it will be to come up with the best responses they can provide to the others' arguments. Revise the paper accordingly (including both assertions and responses). Third, select representatives of both camps who seem to be the most inclined to rational, analytical, data-driven, civil discourse on these issues to see what kind of a compromise proposal, if any, can be created.
An illustration of a possible contribution to the latter comes from Supervisor Rettig, as reported by Gregg Hennigan in this morning's Gazette: "Supervisor Janelle Rettig said . . . she’d support the county paying more for the project up front to reduce the amount bonded and not fully building out the facility at the start." Gregg Hennigan, "Johnson County leaders discuss possibility of another justice center vote; Another vote would have to wait at least six months," The Gazette, November 8, 2012, p. A2.
Discussion can be constructive; it is also essential. But my experience has taught me that it is multiples more efficient, effective, and speedy if it is focused on a written document at the outset. As the discussion progresses, the document is revised. This produces both a tangible product from the discussion, greater likelihood of agreement, and a record of the the process.
Just a thought. You're welcome.
Humankind has struggled with virtually every aspect of crime and punishment since we came down out of the trees. See, e.g., "Criminology," Wikipedia.org.
The economic and human cost of the "solution" called incarceration have created both a multi-billion-dollar industry and human failures. "With more than 2.3 million people locked up, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of 100 American adults is behind bars -- while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison [NJ: a grossly disproportionate percentage of which are minorities and the poor]. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government spend about $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry." "Billions Behind Bars; Inside America's Prison Industry; CNBC Goes Behind the Razor Wires to Investigate the Profits and Inner-Workings of the Multi-Billion Dollar Corrections Industry," CNBC, October 2012.
Prisons have now become America's most fully occupied, and expensive, public housing program.
Nor have Iowa, and Iowa City, remained outside these challenges. Johnson County's supervisors, and sheriff, are recommending local residents approve a near-$50-million bond burden on top of their current property taxes to provide a substantial expansion to our local contribution to the prison industry and our own public housing.
Here is my own effort, in this morning's [Oct. 15] Press-Citizen, to keep to the requested 500-word limit on my own thoughts about the challenge:
Voting "Yes, but. . ." for the Justice Center
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 15, 2012, p. A7
But questions, concerns and unused opportunities remain.
• Big picture, big debt. Iowa taxpayers’ debt service obligations are about $2 billion. We’ve just promised $250 million to a foreign corporation: jobs for Iowans, profits for Egyptians. Our local school district is eyeing its $281 million borrowing capacity. Downtown development takes millions in TIFs. The justice center adds $48 million-plus. There’s no central rationalization of priorities on taxpayers’ behalf.
• Regional centers. For 100 years — the 1830s to 1930s — Iowa’s horse-and-buggy 99 county governments made sense. They don’t anymore. Politically, counties can’t be abolished. But mental health services now are transferring from counties to “regions.”
Why not regional jails — the low-cost alternative to 99 jails designed for peak occupancy?
Our $1 million a year sending inmates elsewhere compares favorably with the jail’s share of $48 million. Why not continue it for those serving week, month or longer sentences? Wouldn’t that reduce the cells needed for the football drunks and those awaiting trials?
Why are neighboring counties’ jails not full? Is it possible future policy and funding changes with mental health and dependency populations, social and political attitudes, technological and other innovations will further reduce the need for jail cells? Won’t rationalizing our continued, though reduced, use of others’ jails give us more future flexibility?
What would a peak load analysis suggest as our optimum number of additional cells?
• Criminal consolidation. How about a standalone criminal structure — courtrooms, meeting and class rooms, along with jail cells? It would improve efficiency, consolidation and eliminate courthouse security concerns. Potential, adjacent, full city block locations are available southeast, south, and west.
Our courthouse is one of Iowa’s greatest early, Romanesque structures. More than 110 years old, it deserves, and should continue to be, maintained in its original setting — like Old Capitol. That was the wise choice when moving courthouse offices to the current County Administration Building five blocks away. It’s the wisest, win-win choice now.
Moreover, this would enable limiting a refurbished, more secure courthouse to civil cases.
• Holistic approach. A significant proportion of the criminal population suffers from the mental health and chemical dependency challenges that make them repeat visitors. Jails are neither their answer nor ours. Johnson County has made commendable progress transferring these individuals from jails to specialized courts and programs. But might it not be cheaper, more effective and humane, to budget as well as administer to this population’s total needs with a single program? Can we do even more to reduce the need for jails?
We need some additions to our criminal justice capabilities. That’s why I’m voting “yes.” But that doesn’t mean additional thought, and modification of what’s now on the drawing board, couldn’t serve us even better.
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City native and former school board member, teaches at the Iowa College of Law and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.org.