Monday, October 15, 2012

Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime

October 15, 2012, 9:10 a.m.

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.

What follows is the blog entry entered here October 15, 2012:

Humankind has struggled with virtually every aspect of crime and punishment since we came down out of the trees. See, e.g., "Criminology,"

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
Nicholas Johnson

I’ll be voting for the justice center. Some increase in jail cells and courtrooms seems warranted, notwithstanding dispute about numbers.

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 and

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John Neff said...

Several years ago the National Institute of Corrections did a short study about why there were so few regional jails.

What they found out was that the counties all had to have intake facilities to book and hold persons arrested until initial appearance before a judge or magistrate. They also had to spend money transporting inmates for court appearances and attorney conferences. In addition there was more or less continuous conflict between counties about fair apportionment of costs.

If you had a single joint courthouse-jail facility at the intersection of four counties that would save money but LOL on solving the political problems of making that happen.

Nick said...

Thank you, John, for that helpful addition.

John Neff is one of the most knowledgeable persons I know when it comes to prison policy.

On this occasion, I think we're in basic agreement.

I'm not advocating that regional jails substitute for county jails, or that they be used for inmates awaiting trials and conferences with their attorneys.

I'm only asking for a further rationalizing of the balance between in-county and out-of-county incarceration -- our current equivalent of "regional jails."

Rather than 99 counties building jails of sufficient size that each county will never need to place inmates out of county, isn't there some way of thinking about in-county and out-of-county incarceration that might, for example, concentrate on keeping in-county those awaiting trial, while placing out-of-county those serving relatively longer sentences? Shouldn't we view rational utilization of available space elsewhere as a blessing rather than a curse?

I'm taking others' word for the assertion we need additional jail cells (and courtrooms) in Johnson County. The remaining question is: "How many?" And the answer to that turns, at least in part, on the answers to the questions/analysis above.

John Neff and I also agree, as noted in the op ed column, regarding the political impossibility (at this time) of rationalizing the number of county governments in Iowa.

This is no longer a state dependent upon horse-and-buggy transportation (aside from the Amish) along the muddy, unpaved roads of my youth. Relatively high-speed cars and trucks (and private planes), traveling along Interstates and paved farm-to-market roads, make something like 25 "county" governments much more sensible than the 99 we have today.

John Neff said...

There are people that are sentenced to serve two and seven day jail sentences that report to the jail after being placed on a waiting list. They could have served their sentence without waiting in another county jail. From a corrections point of view prompt punishment is thought to be most effective but for a cost point of view the waiting list is the best choice.

Most people enter jail as pretrial detainees and at some point become sentenced prisoners that are released upon expiration of sentence. The booking data does not record when the pretrial stage ends so it is not possible to figure how that part of the process influences jail bed usage. In the case of multiple charges there could be multiple times for the end of the pretrial stage.

The jail staff have become very good at managing the jail population so they may already placing sentenced prisoners in other county jails.

Robust Han said...

There are 1,464 counties in mainland China, far less than in the States.'s_Republic_of_China

John Neff said...

Jail inmates fall into two natural sets: a) those held less than one week and b) those held from one week to about 100 weeks.

The average bed use by the first set is about 26 and that amount of bed use has not changed for years. We have a jail designed for 46 beds that can easily serve the needs of that set of inmates.

The average bed use by the second set of inmates averaged 132 in FY 2012. That bed usage have been growing for years. Prior to 2001 the rate of increase was 3.2 beds used peer year and after 2001 the rate of increase was 6.3 beds used per year. The average rate of increase for 1983 to 2012 was 4.2 beds used per year.

To meet our current needs we need 26 beds for the first set and 132 beds for the second set and we need to provide for future growth in the bed usage by the second set. The present designed sized 46 bed jail cannot be expanded to meet the current needs so it is obvious that a new larger facility is needed.

Can some of the second set be housed in other county jails? Of course that is what we are doing now.

Is that a good option? Not for pretrial detainees. Maybe for sentenced inmates but if you do that the judges will immediately put all sentenced inmates in
jail instead of placing them on a waiting list and that will increase the cost of operating the jail. OTOH prompt punishment is supposed to be more effective so that might justify the additional cost.

Anonymous said...

You, the United States Justice System and Social Wellfare system, you rightly claim to help many poor and oppressed. But, if, by your very system you misunderstand-and-oppress even one soul, then your own system is partly in error. Even your system of punishment-by-ward you take for granted as righteous. So, you impute to the ill-effects of that ward a justice which it does not have, thus making those ill-effects unnecessarily worse for those held captive in it to whom you otherwise minister.