Friday, April 12, 2013

Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility

April 12, 2013 7:50 a.m. [And see also, "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues," April 17, 2013.]

Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively

Vote 'No' on Justice Center, But 'Yes' for Courthouse

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2013, p. A7

There's a happy, win-win approach to Johnson County's courts and jail needs well within reach. Sadly the County Supervisors didn't grab it.

So I’m voting “No” on the so-called “revised” proposal.

When this vote also fails, let’s do what almost everyone agrees on: fix the Courthouse. Detach the jail from both the Courthouse and the ballot proposition. Here’s how.

1. Reserve the Courthouse for civil proceedings. Spiff it up. Accommodate ADA requirements and other needs. The Courthouse and Old Capitol are Iowa City's most prized architectural gems.

Relocating criminal proceedings will eliminate much of the Courthouse overcrowding and security concerns, while providing additional offices and space for civil proceedings.

2. Create a detached, stand-alone facility for criminal proceedings and jail cells. It would be much more efficient for those handling criminal cases.

There could be new courtrooms and chambers for judges; offices and rooms for clerks and records, assistant county attorneys, deputy sheriffs, inmates’ lawyers and families, training programs, as well as jail cells. They could be designed for optimum efficiency by those using them.

There would be little or no public objection to architectural design. Security could be built in, rather than reconfiguring the Courthouse.

There would be no need to have this facility either near the Courthouse or more than a half-mile away. It would be a one-stop shop; a stand-alone facility.

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.

3. There are reasons to preserve the integrity of the Courthouse. The Courthouse, like Old Capitol, is a valuable Iowa City asset. It is an attraction in an area the City wants to develop.

It may be "legal" to attach a modern architectural extension on this 100-year-old U.S. Register of National Historic Places structure, but why would anyone want to do so? 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. [Photo credit: Iowa's County Courthouses.]

Do we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists? That appears to be a goal of the downtown merchants, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City Council, and others.

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?

That's nuts.

Particularly since we also despoil an architectural gem of a Courthouse in the process – one that might otherwise actually be an attraction of sorts for those walking or otherwise enjoying the area.

Iowa City is not like Washington, where the best one can hope for is the least worst alternative. We don’t have to settle. We can be creative.

We can have it all: improve the Courthouse’s interior, while preserving its exterior and setting. Detach a Criminal Justice Center from the ballot, and from the Courthouse; create one more efficient and pleasant to work in than anything dreamed of so far.

Vote “No” May 7th on the unrevised proposal.

Then, later, let’s (1) all vote “Yes” for what we do agree on – a refurbished Courthouse; and (2) begin planning, and then agreeing to vote “Yes,” on a Criminal Justice Center that will bring deserved distinction to Johnson County.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains and


Readers' Comments, My Responses, in Press-Citizen Online Edition

Rod Sullivan · Top Commenter · Iowa City, Iowa

The problem with this proposal is there is one Clerk's Office - the State will not pay for two - and one set of judges. So inefficiency and higher operating costs follow.

Friday at 7:48am

Nicholas Johnson · Top Commenter

Rod, I don't see the problem. As long as the County has more than one judge, and both civil and criminal dockets to which they are assigned, I don't see what difference it makes (in terms of your "one set of judges") whether the one presiding over a given day's criminal cases is located in a structure attached to the Courthouse, or in a spiffy Criminal Justice Center8 blocks away.

Similarly with the "one Clerk's Office." There would still be "one Clerk's Office" (as there would be "one County Attorney's Office") in the sense of organization charts. I assume the civil and criminal files are kept separate now. As with the judges, I see no legal distinction between taking records into an adjoining structure or taking them a few blocks down the street.

Neither one of us knows until the numbers are run, but I think lower operating costs are as likely (from what I believe would be a much more efficient operation, contrary to your assertion) as that there would be "higher operating costs."

Frankly, I would not object even if the operating costs did prove to be slightly higher (though I doubt that would be the case). As with any personal, public, or corporate expenditure, the issue is not "cost" in isolation, the issue is the "benefit-cost" relationship. By that standard, I think the benefits from what I propose far, far exceed those from what will be on the ballot, for the reasons I've set forth in the column.

Do you really think it was a mistake to move your office, and that of other Supervisors from the Courthouse to your new County Administration Building? I don't. If you agree with me about that, just think about my proposed Criminal Justice Center again: something designed for optimum efficiency, by the people who will be using it, with the advantages I set forth.

-- Nick

Friday at 8:53am

Deborah Thornton · Top Commenter

And we KNOW the majority of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors are AGAINST inefficiency and higher operating costs in all the things they do, and decisions they make! So we should vote for the new jail. Right! Wrong. Vote NO on the new jail. Spork the Jail.

Friday at 7:57am

Anne Stearns Tanner · Top Commenter · University of Iowa

Continue to pay every county in eastern Iowa to house our inmates. Certainly a wise economic policy.

Friday at 8:43am

Nicholas Johnson · Top Commenter

(1) As the column makes clear, I'm advocating for a Criminal Justice Center. (2) And your comment is obviously directed at Deb Thornton, not me; understood. (3) I take your comment to be sarcastic; that is, you think renting jail cells is not "a wise economic policy."

(4) I haven't run the numbers; I don't know whether renting cells is cheaper or not. But it's not as obvious to me that it is, as apparently it is to you.

We don't have a choice between "free" and "$1 million a year" (to rent cells elsewhere). It's a choice between $1 million a year and $40 million-plus this year.

Which is cheaper, to stay for "free" in the beach house you own, for which you paid $200,000, or to pay $1000 a week to rent it for a week or two each summer? Cheaper to buy a car and leave it at the beach house for when you're there so you can use it for "free," or to rent a car for a week or two once you get there? Cheaper to build an additional "guest house" on your beach property for when family drops in, or just put them up in the motel down the street? You get the idea.

It's at least possible that, looking at it only from the standpoint of our costs of holding inmates, it might very well be cheaper to save some of the multi-million-dollar construction costs and handle the occasional overflow by renting, rather than building, additional cells.

(5) I understand that there are other goals besides just saving money that cannot be met by renting cells. I propose achieving some of those goals with the Criminal Justice Center I describe. Those and other reasons may well justify the cost of construction. But so far I've never found the argument persuasive (I might in the future, once taking a hard look at the numbers), that the reason for spending $40 million-plus is: all the money we'll save by not renting cells for overflow.

(6) Finally, our County Attorney, Janet Lyness, and others have been working at alternatives to incarceration: fewer arrests, ankle bracelets, shorter holding terms, drug courts, mental health services, reduction of recidivism, and so forth. We're lucky we have such people. To the extent they are successful with these efforts we could well see a reduction in the need for additional cells in the future.

We'll still need whatever we still need. But regardless of future numbers we don't need enough cells to handle every single arrest 24/7/365. Calculating the optimum ability to meet daily need is a classic systems analysis peak load problem. Cost of renting cells is relevant. But, insofar as cost is concerned, there is an optimum combination of the number of cells we need to build and have on hand every day, and the number of days it makes more sense (at least financially) to rent others' cells a few days a year.

Friday at 2:10pm

Dave Parsons · Partner & CFO at Tallgrass Business Resources

It wasn't clear to me if you felt the Old Courthouse would not need the same security measures as the new one in your proposal. I was talking to an attorney who said that divorces, custody cases and foreclosures are often more emotional and contentious than criminal cases.
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Anonymous said...

Sounds good to me.

Unknown said...

One could also vacate the courthouse and rehab the interior to make it into a modern functional building that could be used for some other purpose. It would be subject to the condition that the historic exterior be preserved. Things like that have been done the old library was rehabilitated for example.

That might or might not make the historic preservation folks happy. You would have to ask them.

mensan said...

Jailed citizens could attend court hearings via closed circuit camera or skype, as is done in many cities. Then, the jail could be located anywhere. Video appearances are not unusual and would maintain optimal security, minimize manpower as transport guards are then not required and create a much safer environment for the public, lawyers, judges and court personnel.

The idea to separate criminal proceedings from civil proceedings is excellent and may be done even in a shared building. (Some states have judges who preside over only civil or only criminal cases, which has its advantages, and in those states the buildings may be separate or shared, but partitioned.)

The current courthouse could be preserved and utilized for other needs of the public, similar to the post office becoming the senior citizen center.

There are 3 separate sets of people involved in this working scenario:

1-the civil lawyers with civil clients and the employees attending to those cases, and the public

2-the criminal lawyers and their clients and the court personnel attending to those cases, and the public, and

3-the jail personnel and the jailed citizens

Viewing the matter in this way expands the number of facilities and the location of facilities, which could lower the costs to us taxpayers.

Tommy Schmitz said...

Off topic, my apologies.

Hello Nick. I have about 500 Muslim friends on Facebook. To a degree far higher than we could imagine, they are a tolerant people. My question (not theirs): Why can't the FCC do something about this? This is not news, its not commentary, it's the dispensing of pure hatred and the urge to kill. I realize I am naive about these matters, legally, but my God. Is it not time from Fox to have its liceanse stripped, right this minute? - Tommy in Des Moines.

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