Surely it is not really the case that in order to resolve our current justice system challenges, "There Is No Alternative" to despoiling our National Historic Registry, 100-year-old, architectural gem of a Courthouse like this:
When we could resolve our challenges with a more efficient, detached "Criminal Justice Center" for roughly the same cost, leaving our Courthouse's exterior and setting to look like this:
I've got good news and bad news.
Let's start with some good news; an example of a community's successful, innovative responses to a challenge.
When I was a young boy, American communities' response to an increased supply of material needing transformation was to acquire more land to be used for landfills. It wasn't that opponents' proposed alternatives to this approach were rebuffed; it was that such alternatives weren't a part of the communities' policy dialogue. (Recycling during World War II, like rationing, was sold to the public as a part of the war effort, not as a way to avoid additional landfills.)
The late, former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was sometimes referred to as "TINA," because of her oft-heard response to the Loyal Opposition's proposals of alternatives to her policies: "There Is No Alternative." It was the response of some in Johnson County to recycling, or other alternatives to ever-more land devoted to landfills.
There is still not unanimity of opinion regarding today's alternatives. I have a couple colleagues who refuse to recycle.
But there appears to be ever-increasing innovation and participation. Consignment stores recycle clothing, furniture, housewares, and many other things that might otherwise have been discarded. Habitat ReStore has used building materials and appliances. Goodwill Reboot recycles computers and related gear -- a major diversion from landfills, as well as savings for users. We pay refunds for the recycling of drink contains made of aluminum, plastic, or glass. We have a recycling center that accepts cardboard, plastic, glass, tin cans, newspapers, magazines, telephone books, and other paper. City trucks pick up recyclable items from containers at curbside. Unused food and other material is being turned into compost and mulch. Some things have become a source of methane gas, or fuel to create heat or electric power. As a result, Johnson County has preserved land for farming, parks -- or suburbs -- that would otherwise have been turned into landfills.
That's the good news. That's an example of what innovative "creative corridor"-type thinking can contribute to resolving a modern community's, or county's, challenges.
Unfortunately, it stands in sharp contract to how we're approaching the challenges confronting our justice system.
The County is proposing to build a shiny, big box, modern architecture "Justice Center" and attach it to the Johnson County, National Historic Register Courthouse. Defeated by the voters last November, it's up for another vote May 7, 2013.
The proposal has sparked a lively exchange of views throughout the community.
Unfortunately, the debaters have yet to join issue.
The proponents continue to lean on a straw man that cannot bear their weight. They point out that the Courthouse needs more than just a facelift, and that the way we're running our criminal justice system in Johnson County we're going to need more jail cells -- specifically, we have to have precisely their proposed structure, located exactly where they propose to attach it and nowhere else. Like Thatcher, they insist, "There is no alternative."
The problem with the proponents using these assertions as their basic premise is that those urging a "No" vote agree that the Courthouse needs fixing; many even agree that we may need more jail cells that we now have.
Here is an example of their rhetoric, beginning with the comment I put on the Press-Citizen's online version of a recent column written by one of the Justice Center proponents.
Scott McKeag provides reasons why "something" needs to be done about the Johnson County Courthouse and Jail.Is it really the case that the citizens of Johnson County are genetically incapable of bringing the same kind of creativity, the same kind of willingness to consider alternatives, to our justice system challenges as we brought to our landfill challenges? I just can't believe that is the case.
What he fails to address is why he believes in the late former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's theory of "TINA" -- "There is no alternative" -- in this case to the proponents' concept of a modern "Justice Center" attachment on the historic Courthouse.
He acknowledges that even "the 'no' campaign's biggest voices... agree the justice center has to be part of a larger solution" -- the latest of which is Karen Kubby's column, along with McKeag's, in this morning's Press-Citizen. Karen Kubby, "Supportive of Justice Center, Yet Voting 'No,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 26, 2013, p. A7.
There may be some local citizens who believe in doing nothing about the conditions of our Courthouse and jail. But there are none among my acquaintance or persons I have ever met.
McKeag's is a false argument. I'm tempted to respond with the old line, "I follow you all but the 'therefore.'"
The controversy is not about whether "something" should be done. The controversy involves precisely what that "something" ought to be.
There are as many sound objections to the proponents' specifics as McKeag provides reasons for doing "something." See, "Vote No 'Justice Center," -- and give special attention to the links to its "Why vote NO" and "Opinions" pages.
And the opponents have as many positive suggestions for what those better alternatives might be as they have objections to the May 7 ballot proposal. See, for example, the very thoughtful collection of alternative approaches in American Civil Liberties Union, Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities (August 2011), or any and all of John Neff's research and writing.
If the proposition passes "that's all she wrote." But if it fails again, which is always a possibility, what do we do next?
In "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility," I propose ways we can "get to 'yes'" on both needed Courthouse improvements and a detached Criminal Justice Center.
For some of my other writing regarding the County's Courthouse and jail needs, "Why TINA's Wrong; There Are Alternatives," April 25, 2013; "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues", April 17, 2013; "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility," April 12, 2013; "Johnson County Can Lead Incarceration Reform; 'If not now, when? If not us, who?'" March 8, 2013; "'Iowa Nice' & the Compromise Three-Step; How the County Can Get to 'Yes' on the Justice Center", November 16, 2012; "Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime" October 15, 2012.
Now here is the column of Mr. McKeag that prompted my response, above.
"County Residents Agree, So Let's Move Forward"
Iowa City Press-Citizen
April 26, 2013, p. A10
I spent my entire undergraduate career at the University of Iowa opposing the idea of a new jail.
I had heard the opposition’s points, read their amusing fliers and took their word for it, knowing that our country has a historical track record of inequities in its justice system. I would have voted “no” to any proposal put in front of me up until two years ago.
At that time I was working with area high school students about how to use local research tools as they worked on civics projects of their own, and I began to see the data for myself. I began paying more attention during my visits to the aging courthouse, however infrequent.
Almost accidentally, I began to think for myself. I remember thinking about how and where I would want my tax dollars spent and about how important it is to ensure we aren’t depriving civil liberties and rights for the accused and incarcerated.
I also recognized the importance of empathy and the promise for a better future for those historically on the wrong end of society’s prejudices. Eventually I had the courage to admit to myself and others that building a large enough jail to meet the current and projected needs of the county did not conflict with my desire to see better race and socio-economic relations in our county, state and nation.
More importantly, I realized I could best oppose the misguided “War on Drugs” by demonstrating that lobbying my state and federal representatives is more appropriate and effective on these larger issues, rather than protest voting against my own best interests as a county resident.
Last November I supported the justice center, and I support it now, because I recognize that our jail isn’t full of recreational drug users and “newly drunk” to “sobering up” students. In fact, an April 8 report showed that of the 125 individuals in our jail at that time (which is 79 more than the original capacity of our 1981 jail); zero persons were in for only having marijuana or only having too much to drink over the weekend.
Those 125 were there because the laws above the county level said they had to be.
I support the justice center because you cannot have the most progressive jail diversion and treatment programs in the state if you are forced to use a hallway as a meeting area.
I support the justice center because our hardworking county employees shouldn’t have to risk breathing in mold spores and falling down 100-year-old stairs to file my paperwork in a room that is out of space.
I support the justice center because we need to have adequate facilities to ensure those who are legally mandated to stay in jail don’t have to do so in other counties.
And after observing the “No” campaign’s biggest voices making public comments saying they, in fact, do support the building of a justice center, it becomes clear that we all agree the justice center has to be part of a larger solution. Their issue is with the increased capacity of the proposed jail, which itself accounts for only about one-third of the project’s total cost.
A “no” vote will only serve to make this problem bigger and more expensive down the road for current and future taxpayers. There is something in this proposal for everyone, and current city and county leadership has even begun to explore deeper societal structures to continue its efforts to engage both the public at-large and the opponents of the justice center.
So let’s fight the state and federal battles together tomorrow. It’s time to stand for Johnson County today. Vote “yes” on or before May 7.
Scott McKeag is an Iowa City resident.