Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why TINA's Wrong

April 25, 2013, 9:55 p.m.

Note: There have been a number of public events held by proponents and opponents of a proposed "Justice Center" box to be physically attached to a 100-year-old Courthouse in Johnson County, Iowa. A bond issue failed to pass in November 2012, and was soon back on a ballot for a May 7 vote.

One of those events was organized by University of Iowa Professor Jeff Cox, and held Tuesday evening [April 23, 2013]. Five persons including myself were asked to serve on a panel, and allocated 10 minutes each, in this order:

Jeff Cox: Yes We Can....Control Local Arrest Rates. The War on Drugs and Racial Disparities
Bob Thompson: Stabilizing Jail Population Growth
Ruedi Kuenzli: What Should We Do With the Current Jail?
Nicholas Johnson: Getting to Yes With a Detached Criminal Justice Center
Caroline Dieterle: Jail Beds for Victimless Crimes

What follows, below, is a combination of an advance text and some transcription from a video the "Vote No Justice Center" organization has made available from its Web site. There are five videos of the evening; my remarks are in Part II, from minute 10:00 to 19:04. (The other panelists are, of course, introduced and recorded on Parts I and II, along with the animated exchanges between them and the audience members on Parts III, IV and V -- which ran over twice as long as the panelists' presentations.) -- N.J.

There Are Alternatives

Nicholas Johnson
Remarks Prepared for Presentation at the
Alternatives to Bigger Jail Event
Plaza Room, Hotel Vetro
Iowa City, Iowa, April 23, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

Because I am this evening advocating a “No” vote on the proposed Justice Center on May 7, it may surprise some of you to know that six months ago I had a column in the Press-Citizen with the headline, “Voting ‘Yes, but . . .’ for the Justice Center.”

[October 15, 2012, p. A7; embedded in ,” “Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime."]
Six months ago I wrote of the need for centralized “rationalization of priorities on taxpayers’ behalf,” given the number of governmental units imposing multiple debts on taxpayers. Regional jails could better serve the needs of the 21sst Century than the 99 county jails that well suited 1840s. I spoke of a detached, stand-alone Criminal Justice Center – both for its own value, and to better preserve our architectural gem of a Courthouse; of that portion of “the criminal population that suffers from the mental health and chemical dependency challenges” and become recidivists; and asked, “Can we do even more to reduce the need for jails?

I concluded, “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.”

What distinguishes my position then from my position this evening is simple: I am less naïve.

I recognized then, as I and some other opponents do now, that there may well be a need for some improvements in both the Courthouse and number of jail cells.

But my naiveté then, I’m embarrassed to reveal, was that we could endorse the proponents’ idea without endorsing their details, and that the proponents would be willing to modify their original idea before implementing it.

What I have come to understand during the intervening months, given the so-called “revised proposal,” is that I was really wrong. I’ve seen the relative intransigence of the proponents; their unwillingness to make any other than the most superficial tweaks in their original plan.

They had a lot of alternative ideas put out there, and they chose not to grab onto any of them. We were left with what Jeff Cox has called “TINA” – “There is no alternative.”

The proponents of the May 7 ballot proposition would have us believe we have only two choices: either we must say “Yes” to anything they propose or they will charge we are saying “No” to everything.

I take a little different position, and like others this evening, have an alternative.

I am not a member of any group with regard to this. What I have been trying to do is to come up with both substantive proposals and procedural ways of evolving them, that could help the voters of Johnson County get to “Yes,” finally vote on whatever it is we decide we need, and go on to the other challenges we have in this county.

And I’ve not been very successful at that, but will share with you some of what I have proposed.

So ten days ago another column of mine ran in the Press-Citizen, this time headlined, “Vote 'No' on Justice Center, But 'Yes' for Courthouse.”

[Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2013, p. A7, embedded in, “Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility; Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively,” April 12, 2013; ; and see also, "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues," April 17, 2013.]
It was an effort to put forward a proposal and procedure that would hopefully enable us to come to an agreement on this and move on.

In it I made three points I want to leave with you this evening.

In the event the bond issue fails once again on May 7, we need to come up with both a substantive proposal, and a procedure, that will enable Johnson County voters to, as I titled another blog essay, “Get to ‘Yes.’” The centerpiece of my proposal is that we detach the jail from both the Courthouse and the ballot proposition. Here’s how.

1. We should reserve the Courthouse for civil proceedings. There seems to be less divisiveness over fixing up the Courthouse. So let’s vote separately to support that project. By building a Criminal Justice Center that is not attached to the Courthouse, or its ballot proposition, we can get it spiffed up, eliminate much of the overcrowding and security concerns, and provide the needed additional offices and space for civil proceedings.

2. A detached, stand-alone facility for criminal proceedings and jail cells 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 – all designed for optimum efficiency by those using them.

There would be much less controversy over its architectural design. Security could be built in

It would be a one-stop shop; a stand-alone facility.

There is precedent. Offices for all County Departments used to be in the Courthouse. They are now in a separate, County Administration Building a few blocks away.

So that’s our precedent. But the fact is there is a lot of precedent around this state for counties that have addressed this very issue and have come to exactly my conclusion. That is something that I didn’t know when I wrote the column and just discovered today.

Numerous Iowa counties have chosen to separate by some distance their civil courthouses from their law enforcement facilities – among them Cedar, Des Moines, Dubuque, Jasper, and Polk. And goodness knows how many more. Obviously, I didn’t have time this afternoon to look at all 99. They have designed almost precisely what I’m talking about: moving all the criminal stuff out of the courthouse, leaving it for civil proceedings.

They know something. What is it they know that we don’t know; something so obvious to them, and so abhorrent to those proposing our own Justice Center?

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, the Convention Bureau, want 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? Even if you could do it and not go to jail yourself? Would we put such an extension on Old Capitol? Of course not. Just think of how abhorrent that would be. It’s equally abhorrent when it is attached to the Courthouse.

If we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists, and put in little sidewalk cafes or whatever else they may have in mind –- I haven’t checked yet with Marc Moen -- why on earth would we plop jail cells for criminals right in the middle of downtown? Is that a tourist attraction? I don’t think so. And even if it were, I don’t see why tourists couldn't walk another five blocks to it, like we do to get to the Administration Building.

So I don’t see that we get anything in terms of the downtown development by attaching this big box Justice Center to the Courthouse. I think we create additional problems for ourselves in the Courthouse.

We can resolve those problems in the Courthouse. We can provide a better justice facility than anything they are talking about. Particularly since we also despoil an architectural gem of a Courthouse in the process.

As I concluded that column, Iowa City is not like Washington, where the best one can hope for is the least worst alternative – if you can even get that, as we discovered this last week.

Here in Johnson County, 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 the proponents have even dreamed of so far.

There are alternatives.

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