Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher

April 17, 2013, 10:30 a.m.

The Discussion Continues

This morning's Press-Citizen [April 17, 2013] contains an opinion piece taking issue with one of mine: Nicholas Johnson, "Vote 'No' on Justice Center, But 'Yes' for Courthouse," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2013, p. A7, embedded in the blog, "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility; Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively," April 12, 2013.

The column challenging mine is authored by an able local attorney, Jim McCarragher: "Single facility improves safety, security, space," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2013, p. A15. Out of a sense of fairness, and respect for this blog's readers, I reproduce Jim's column below, in its entirety, so that you can judge for yourselves who has the better of this particular disagreement, as you weigh your own vote on May 7.

James D. McCarragher is a partner in the firm where I go for legal advice (as did my family's generations before and after me). He is a graduate of the University of Iowa, and its College of Law where I teach. He was one of our brightest graduates. Local lawyers have elected him to serve as their president of the Johnson County Bar Association. He practices law in the Courthouse I am trying to preserve -- including criminal cases.

I respect both his ability and his ethics. I would not suggest for a moment that he is merely mouthing the best arguments he can come up with on behalf of a client; that he does not personally believe in what he is saying, and that it is truly in the best interest of Johnson County citizens. I assume these are his personal, honest, true beliefs.

But it's fair to note, as he ethically and candidly discloses in the personal identification at the bottom of his opinion piece, that he "is a member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee." This was the group that laid the groundwork for the defeated proposal earlier that has now been revised into what will be before the voters on May 7.

What he does not reveal is that he and his wife are also listed among the supporters of "Vote Yes for Johnson County Justice Center": "Johnson County Justice Center; Vote Yes May 7th, 2013; Safety, Security, Space" -- sometimes called "Yes for Justice" ("Yes for Justice asks voters to VOTE YES to Build a Justice Center for Johnson County.").

Nothing wrong with that. In fact, one of the great assets of Iowa City and Johnson County is its active citizenry -- on both sides of this issue, as on many other issues. The list of supporters of "Yes for Justice" is long and impressive. There's no reason why those who created this proposal should not be among them as advocates for its implementation.

But that's the point. McCarragher helped create this proposal; he is a member and supporter of the advocacy group urging voters to support it; and he is an advocate in this column of his -- whether he is using his fulsome skills as an advocate in a professional or personal capacity.

When a lobbyist for Exxon takes a senator to lunch, and explains to him the justifications for, and positive effects of, the oil industry's tax break called the "depletion allowance," or the NRA lobbyist explains why background checks on gun buyers won't affect gun deaths, it does not mean that the senator should reject everything the lobbyist says, just because it's his job to say it. It may all be true, and persuasive. But the senator might want to be a little skeptical, try to figure out what issues aren't being addressed, and ask an economist who's not funded by the lobbyist's boss what she or he thinks.

I'm not suggesting McCarragher is paid by "Yes for Justice." I would be very surprised if he was. But he is an advocate for the organization.

I am not a member of any organization either supporting or opposing the Justice Center. My own thoughts on the proposal cannot accurately be described as "opposition." Indeed, one of the first columns I wrote about the first proposal and vote urged a "Yes" vote -- much to something between consternation and anger on the part of my friends in "the Democratic Wing of the Johnson County Democratic Party" -- Nicholas Johnson, "Voting 'Yes, but . . .' for the Justice Center," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 15, 2012, p. A7, embedded in the blog essay, "Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime," October 15, 2012.

That was followed with two more, which I also considered centrist and constructive. Nicholas Johnson, "How the County Can Get to 'Yes' on the Justice Center," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 16, 2012, p. A7, embedded in the blog essay, "'Iowa Nice' & the Compromise Three-Step," November 16, 2012, put forth some procedural suggestions. The blog essay, "Johnson County Can Lead Incarceration Reform; 'If not now, when? If not us, who?'," March 8, 2013, was an appeal that Johnson County take the lead in reversing America's reputation as the world's leader in incarceration rates of its citizens.

Nor are the column and blog essay to which Jim McCarragher responds expressing "opposition" to the goals he seeks. It merely suggests a separation of the contentious jail expansion proposals from the generally accepted Courthouse proposals on the ballot, if and when there is a third vote. As with the deadlocked Congress, I'd like to see progress on what majorities agree to rather than a perpetuation of discord over those things they don't.

After we take care of the Courthouse needs, I suggest in that column, we should then agree, and vote "Yes," on whatever jail and Criminal Justice Center needs come out of those deliberations.

Stripped to its core arguments: (1) What does McCarragher take issue with in my column, and (2) which of my points does he choose to ignore?

McCarraher's points and my brief responses.

Courthouse security. My early reading of proponents' arguments left me with the impression they were primarily concerned about Courthouse security because of the present need to bring criminals, and their proceedings, into the Courthouse. If this has really been about security for civil proceedings all along, and there is a need to improve security for that reason, as Nike says, "Do it!" That need, if it exists, will be there regardless of where the Criminal Justice Center is located.

Alteration of Courthouse appearance. McCarragher argues that making the Courthouse secure, and ADA compliant, will be expensive and alter its external appearance. He does not explain why this is so. Most security equipment I have seen, and walked through, was always inside, not outside buildings, and has had no impact on their external appearance. Nor do I grasp his point about ADA compliance. I have assumed we're talking about such things as restroom stalls big enough for a wheelchair; interior elevators, or lifts, for getting up stairs; possibly widening a doorway. It's not clear to me why this would alter the appearance of the Courthouse exterior. As for the cost, both security and ADA compliance will either be done or not. Is he really suggesting that we should not make the Courthouse ADA compliant? In any case, once again the costs are roughly equal whether the Criminal Justice Center is attached to the Courthouse exterior -- where it clearly would have an adverse impact on the Courthouse's exterior appearance -- or located a few blocks away.

Cost of stand-alone Criminal Justice Center. He says his proposal "streamlines spending," whatever that means, and that he offers "one thing instead of two at twice the price," and that spending money on my proposal would be a "waste" of money, requiring two sets of security personnel. These assertions are difficult to evaluate because he provides no data whatsoever; but his conclusions are certainly not intuitive. For starters, the issue is not how much a stand-alone Criminal Justice Center would cost; it should be simply a question of how much more it would cost than the addition the "Yes" folks are advocating be attached to the Courthouse. I don't follow his "one thing instead of two." We're both talking about "one thing"; either "one thing" attached to the Courthouse, or "one thing" down the street. Nor do I agree with the "two sets of security personnel." I was talking about a structure that would be stuffed full of Sheriff's deputies! Are they incapable of providing such security as the Criminal Justice Center would require -- as presumably they do now at the County Jail?

Finally, the idea has already been rejected. Does that assertion, devoid of support, really warrant a reply? How many stories -- that would be hilarious if they were not so sad -- have been told about administrators in all kinds of institutions -- corporate, government, military, universities -- who have responded to suggestions that way, only to have the ideas adopted years later?
Now for what he didn't say; consider the points in my column which he failed to address.

"Relocating criminal proceedings will eliminate much of the Courthouse overcrowding and security concerns, while providing additional offices and space for civil proceedings." Is that not true?

Some of those opposed to the proposal have addressed the architectural design of the addition as dispoiling the Courthouse. I wrote, "There would be little or no public objection to architectural design [of a stand-alone structure away from the Courthouse]." Does he disagree with this advantage?

I wrote, "There is precedent for removing functions from the Courthouse. Offices for all County Departments used to be in the Courthouse. They are now in a separate, County Administration Building a few blocks away with convenient, free parking." Isn't that true?

"Would we put such an extension on Old Capitol? Of course not. We shouldn't want to put one on the Courthouse either. Old Capitol needs its Pentacrest; the Courthouse needs its setting." Does he disagree; does he think an attached, modern structure on Old Capitol would be an improvement for the University?

"Do we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists? . . . That being the case, of all the options for housing, entertainment venues, and other attractions south of Burlington, why on earth would we plop jail cells for criminals right in the middle of downtown?" Does he really think a deliberate decision to improve the attractiveness of downtown by placing criminals in jail cells there is a wise decision?

Here is the full McCarragher column in this morning's paper:

"Single facility improves safety, security, space"

Jim McCarragher

Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2013, p. A15

Nicholas Johnson’s recent guest column claimed there’s a much easier, win-win option to the current proposal for a new Johnson County justice center on the ballot in May.

However, Johnson’s idea of creating a second, separate facility at another location — rather than one streamlined complex — is severely flawed. It would not only create redundant spending the county can’t afford, but it also would not solve the serious security and safety issues for citizens who would continue using the old courthouse.

• Creating a stand-alone building for the jail and criminal proceedings would not solve the continued security and safety threat for civil proceedings at the old courthouse.

Johnson suggests holding criminal proceedings to the newer, more secure facility and leave civil matters at the old courthouse. However, civil cases often can be more contentious than criminal cases when it comes to heated divorces, bitter custody battles and emotional foreclosures.

The old courthouse simply does not have the space to put in the security precautions necessary to detect weapons and other harmful devices without impacting the appearance of this architectural gem.

Other changes to make the building safer and ADA compliant would not be just “spiffing it up.” They would be major and expensive undertakings that also would change the look of the building.

The current proposal on the ballot May 7 would avoid all that by building a new building connected to the current courthouse that addresses all security, safety and accessibility needs without having to make any major changes to the old courthouse.

• Two stand-alone buildings would create serious redundant spending. The county already is spending more than a million dollars per year paying other counties to house the overflow of inmates it can’t accommodate because of space issues. Why waste more?

Two stand-alone buildings would require two sets of security equipment, paying two sets of security team salaries and benefits, as well as two separate clerk of courts offices to handle criminal cases in one building and civil in the other.

Now that’s nuts.

Connecting the two buildings under the current proposal streamlines that spending into one secure system with one staff and one clerk of courts and the sharing of other common functions and space.

In the long process of coming up with the current ballot proposal, the idea of a second stand-alone building was investigated, researched and eventually dismissed. Common sense tells us it’s smarter to pay for one thing instead of two at twice the price.

If we have learned anything from this years-long process, it’s that you can continue to committee and question a project to death. We now have a smart, cost-effective proposal on the ballot that has survived this extensive process.

Now is the time to do the right thing and vote “yes” for the justice center on May 7.

Jim McCarragher is a member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

My Comment on the Press-Citizen's Online Version of McCarragher's Column

Not surprisingly, I have responded to this column in some detail: "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues," April 17,

In it I reference and link three prior columns/blog essays, starting with one urging a "Yes" vote, that were designed to make constructive suggestions regarding (as one was titled) "Getting to Yes." They contained many of the same suggestions in the most recent column to which McCarragher responds: "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility; Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively,"

I then try to pull what seem to be his arguments in his column today and respond to each -- as well as, equally significant, identify the points in my April 12 column he chooses to ignore.

It's too long to reproduce in a comment here, but for anyone who may be interested, you can find it in the blog essay linked at the top of this comment.

Not incidentally, that blog entry, in a sense of fairness, reproduces the entirety of his column -- as it will also contain in the future any additional comments he wishes to add to this discussion.


Richard A Shannon · Top Commenter · Iowa City, Iowa

It's unfortunate that the County has been unyielding on this issue.

From the outside it appears the County's strategy is to keep putting it before voters in hopes they will hit a time a year where turnout will favor their position. As it doesn't appear they are willing to make or consider substantive alternative plans.

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