“Stabilizing Jail Population Growth in Johnson County Iowa” by Bob Thompson

[Source: The following article is submitted by Bob Thompson and addresses viable initiatives and proposals to stabilize or reduce jail population growth in Johnson County, Iowa.]

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“In Iowa, the courts operate at the same staffing level as in 1986, but with a 60% increase in workload… Underfunding has also meant that there is less staff and less time for staff to devote to the cases in the system. Too often, the legal system is not doing its job in the way it should be done. For a justice system, this is unacceptable.” –The Hon. Mark Cady, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Iowa

The county’s population grew about 30% between 1980 and 2000. Meanwhile, the jail bookings increased 450% between 1982 and 1998; the criminal caseload increased by 405% (1982-1998); and the average daily jail population increased by 370% (1982-1999). –CSG Consultants to Neumann Monson PC, 1999

From 1999 to 2008, reported crime in Johnson County has grown by 11%. During the same interval, violent crime decreased by 9%. –RecordsPedia, Johnson County Crime Statistics

“Between 1998 and 2012 the average jail intake rate was essentially constant at 17 per day and under those circumstances the average population should have stayed constant at about 79. Instead it increased from 79 to 156 because the average length of stay for inmates held longer than a week increased from two weeks in 1998 to between five and six weeks in 2011 and 2012.” –UI Professor Emeritus John Neff, Press-Citizen, Mar. 31 2013

Jail population growth has greatly outpaced County population growth. There has been no significant increase in the rate of serious crime. Since most of the increase in criminal caseloads is for misdemeanor offenses, this may be a major factor in the increase in case processing times that is causing the increase in length of stay, hence the increase in jail population. John Neff recently completed a study entitled “What if we capped length of stay?” “Capping length of stay (for misdemeanors at eight weeks and felonies at twenty six weeks) has the potential of reducing jail bed usage by 49 beds and incarceration cost by $1.3 million.”

There are three ways to speed up case processing times: Reduce the number of charges filed, increase court efficiency, or increase court staff. Funding levels to the Judicial Branch and the Public Defenders should be greatly increased by the Iowa legislature. Additionally, alternatives to incarceration, both for sentenced and pretrial offenders, should be used as much as possible.

Increasing space for the Court without increasing State funding for staff cannot solve this problem. With current funding levels, we can at best place one additional judge in Johnson County. What about Clerk of Court staff? Public Defenders’ office? Department of Correctional Services? Either caseloads need to decrease, or staff levels need to catch up.


The County states that ” jail alternatives have a cost and cannot be seen as a means of reducing jail operating expenses.” Yet some of their programs have resulted in substantial cost savings. Source: Jail Alternatives: Prevention, Diversion, Expediting, and Recidivism Reduction Efforts, April 2013

1. Mental health screening and diversion

The Johnson County Jail Alternatives Program is a mental health jail diversion program that provides services to individuals with mental health and co-occurring disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Service provision includes screening, assessment, referral and linkage to treatment services as well as risk assessment, crisis intervention, support counseling, and short-term case monitoring. As of January 1, 2013, the Johnson County Jail Alternatives Program has served a total of 1038 unduplicated individuals since implementation in July 2005. On average, the Jail Alternatives Programs serves approximately 210 individuals per fiscal year. Jail Alternatives compares the number of jail bed dates one year prior to participation in the program and one year post. Based on those who meet the timeframe criteria, there has been a potential savings of 23,829 jail bed dates. At an estimated daily rate of $71 this translates to a potential cost savings of $1,691,859. (average reduction of 8.1 occupied jail beds.)

2. Weekly review of inmates to identify who can be released/case expediting

Beginning in the fall of 2011, staff from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, the Johnson County Attorney’s Office, Jail Alternatives Program, and the Johnson County State Public Defender’s Office meet regularly to review all inmates in the jail who could be released safely prior to their next proceeding. This has led to individuals being release prior to their trial or probation revocation hearing. The impact of this intervention is reflected in the average daily inmate population. In FY 11 the average daily population was 162.4 and in FY12 that was reduced to 156.3. That is an average of 6.1 fewer inmates in custody per day which translates to 2,226.5 fewer bed dates and a cost savings of $158,081.50 (6.1 inmates x 365 days x $71 per day).

3. Substance Abuse Evaluations and Treatment 

Johnson County contracts with MECCA to provide substance abuse evaluations for indigent defendants who are required by law to obtain a substance abuse evaluation.   MECCA staff is present at the jail seven days a week to conduct substance abuse evaluations.  Those arrested for OWI and those with multiple charges related to substance use are typically seen.  The goal of the service is to reduce the length of time inmates are in jail and reduce the number of individuals who may later be found in contempt of court for failing to follow through with an evaluation following discharge from the jail.  In fiscal year 2012, 342 evaluations were completed allowing these inmates to be discharged without delay.  Of those evaluations, 54% were recommended for additional services.

4. Drug Treatment Court

The Johnson County Drug Treatment Court held the first hearings in February 2008.
This program is designed for individuals who have a substance use disorder, and/or a substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorder, and are facing a prison sentence if Drug Court were not an option.  The program includes intensive treatment, intensive supervision, and weekly contact with the judge and Drug Treatment Court team and requires a minimum of 18 months.  This timeframe is important to consider when reviewing the number of participants who have completed the program.

Since beginning on February 23, 2008, in Johnson County:  73 people accepted; 14 people successfully completed probation; 21 still enrolled. The total days of supervision provided in the community for people who would have been in prison otherwise equals 33,480.  Had those individuals been sentenced to prison, the cost to the state would have been $2,890,998 ($86.35 per day).  Instead the cost on supervision was $121,867 ($3.64 per day).  This translates to a savings of $2,769,131.  It is difficult to quantify the impact Drug Treatment Court will have on county jail.  Overall, it should have a positive impact on the jail population by delaying or reducing recidivism long term.

5. Marijuana Diversion Program

The County Attorney’s Office implemented a marijuana diversion program in July 2010. The diversion programs provide a “once only” opportunity for first time offenders to attend a treatment/educational program instead of paying a fine and/or jail time.  In the Marijuana Diversion Program, 300 people have enrolled since the program began on July 1, 2010.  Through July 2012 , 212 people successfully completed the program, 5 were still actively participating in the program, and 83 had been unsuccessfully discharged from the program.

6. Releasing Inmates Prior to Initial Appearance

Jail staff and law enforcement have the discretion to “sign out” individuals to return to the community after they have been charged with an offense so that these individuals do not remain in custody while awaiting their Initial Appearance and pending court hearings.
A. In calendar year 2012, jail staff signed out 239 out of 5,124 (4.7%) individuals after they were booked into the jail.
B. University of Iowa Police Department signed out 97 individuals.
C. Iowa City Police Department “charged and released” in response to 1241 calls for service. *note this may translate to more than 1241 being charged and released as one call for service could have 6 individuals charged and released

7. Discretionary Reward/Incentive Program for Inmates

This is administered by the Sheriff and Jail Administrator.  “Good time” for inmates currently varies from 0% to 20%.  This decreases up to six days off each thirty days of a sentence for an inmate with good behavior.  It provides an incentive for inmates to comply with jail rules and decreases the number of days defendants spend in jail.

 8. Driving Under Suspension Court

The “Rocket Docket” court allows defendants facing simple misdemeanor Driving Under Suspension (DUS) charges to pay past due fines and other financial obligations in order to get a valid driver’s license in exchange for having their DUS charge dismissed.  The focus of the program is to help defendants understand and comply with financial obligations to the state in order to avoid further penalties for non-compliance, which may result in additional days in jail.  In 2012, 830 cases were scheduled and 74% appeared for the hearing.

9. Expedited Filing of the Report of Violation for Probation Violations

The probation revocation request and report are being delivered to the County Attorney’s office within 24 hours after a Preliminary Probation Violation Information is filed.

10. Electronic Home Arrest/Work Release

Work Release allows an inmate to be released from the jail to go to their job then return to the work for all other hours of the day.  The Johnson County Sheriff authorized 135 applications for work/school release from jail during calendar year 2012.  The Sheriff also approved 3 Home Monitoring applications saving 113 bed days and housing costs.


Electronic Monitoring

The County acknowledges that Electronic Monitoring (EM) is so seldom used because of the costs imposed on the offenders. What they do not say is that the supervisors set the cost: they currently charge offenders $20/day, when the private company providing the service charges the County only $10. Their insistence upon doubling their money has effectively killed its use; aside from work release, only 3 applications were approved in FY 2012. They should instead be subsidizing EM for indigents to make it an equitable, viable alternative; this was suggested by former County Attorney Pat White over a decade ago, specifically as an option for sentencing. EM should be used as much as possible as an alternative to pretrial incarceration. The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that one day on EM counts the same as one day in jail; previously, the County’s policy was that two days on EM counted as one day in jail. Before the jail vote in 2000 there were about 20 people on EM at any given time. After the jail was defeated, that program somehow evaporated, and there were 20 people per day in Linn County instead.

County funding for Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to provide an Intensive Supervision/Pretrial Release Program

On August 30, 2001, DCS staff presented a proposal to the Board of Supervisors for such a program. The program would provide needed services for offenders while keeping them out of jail, at a significant cost savings. Offenders would receive counseling, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, help with job and educational opportunities, etc. Compliance to the rules would be achieved with electronic monitoring, drug testing, frequent visits by DCS staff, and possibly a day reporting program. Offenders who otherwise could not get out of jail pending resolution of their cases would receive the necessary assistance for their rehabilitation, while not taking up jail beds, at a significant cost savings to the county.

In 2001, DCS estimated that an intensive pretrial supervision program could reduce jail population by 15-20 beds on average, with a cost of $30-40 per offender per day, less than the current cost to warehouse overflow inmates in Muscatine. A County funded DCS unit could also attend to other alternative programs, providing various levels of supervision, depending on need; for example, a day reporting program, supervised community service, and coordination of volunteers to supervise community service projects, provide classes, mentoring, etc.

Day Reporting Program

Such a program would assist offenders with their rehabilitation, by providing educational activities and augmentation of treatment programs. It could be facilitated in conjunction with Intensive Pretrial Supervision, a Volunteer Program, and/or used as a sentencing option. Keeping offenders busy with constructive, educational/rehabilitative activities is an essential element in assisting them with the task of becoming productive and self-sufficient. If appropriately integrated into other programs, this would be a valuable tool for rehabilitating inmates.

Supervised (intensive) community service program

Community service is a more constructive sentencing option than serving time in jail. However, some offenders do not perform well in unsupervised community service settings. The DCS could provide supervision for community service projects around the county for offenders deemed unsuitable for unsupervised community service. Such programs are supervised by Americorp volunteers. If this option were available to judges, fewer people would serve their sentences in jail. In addition, judges should be encouraged to use community service options in lieu of fines whenever possible; this would in turn reduce the number of offenders jailed for contempt, since most contempt cases are for nonpayment of fines. Fining poor and indigent offenders is a poor choice, when other options are available.

Jail Alternatives as a Remedy for Disproportionate Minority Incarceration

Alternatives to incarceration may be the most effective, immediate way to alleviate racial disparity in the jail; a primary reason that black people are incarcerated disproportionately to whites is that they have disproportionately low income, and more frequently lack the financial means to make bail.

The Johnson County Jail Space and Services Task Force discussed disproportionate minority incarceration in the juvenile and adult criminal justice system over a decade ago. Their recommendations were ignored, and the issue was swept under the rug.

Public Defender John Robertson wrote on this issue, in the Task Force report (appendix):

“The Task Force recommends that the Board of Supervisors fund a study of jail and sentencing rates for people of color, designed to determine if jail and sentencing patterns discriminate against people of color; if such discrimination occurs, the County should immediately implement policy and procedures designed to eliminate such discrimination. There is concern that at least some part of the present overcrowding issues are related to race; if true, such practices may be illegal and certainly do not comport with community values; likewise, if true, such practices add to overcrowding pressures in the jail.”

Ten years later, only after perceiving that disproportionate minority incarceration was one of the reasons they lost the Justice Center vote in November, they are finally talking about developing a “racial equity impact assessment tool.” Johnson County is now on the small list of intervention sites of the Iowa Department of Human Rights Office of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, mostly because of the extremely disproportionate incarceration of black children.


Alcohol/drug diversion from arrest

The County recently terminated its Alcohol Diversion program, which was a way to avoid prosecution for public intoxication. We should have a facility set up as an alternative to jail for intoxicated subjects. The Emergency Treatment Center of UI hospitals applied for a grant for such a facility in 2010. I asked about the status of that proposal, but no answer was given. Lt. Kevin Bell of the jail unit thought such a program would be used heavily. The idea of starting a “detox center” as an alternative to arrest received considerable attention more than a decade ago. We need more diversions and policy changes to reduce the high volume of misdemeanor cases, in order to reduce caseloads.

Summonses instead of arrest warrants

Use summonses rather than arrest warrants for Failure To Appear in court and other charges, when appropriate.
Offenders who fail to appear at their court hearings usually aren’t trying to avoid prosecution, they are merely irresponsible, or in some cases have not been informed of the court date by their attorneys. Warrants are issued for some other types of offenses in which the subject is not a threat to the community (e.g., failure to pay traffic fines). This wastes police, jail and court system resources, and is unnecessarily harsh in many cases.

Mediation/restitution/reconciliation program

Use the DCS victim/offender mediation/restitution/reconciliation program as a diversion from filing charges in appropriate cases. In addition, make this available for use in sentencing orders, if the victim consents.

Citation rather than arrest

Johnson County law enforcement agencies can increase the issuance of citations to non-assaultive simple misdemeanants who list an Iowa residence.

Officer discretion

Officer discretion can be highly effective in keeping people out of the system; not every arrestable offense needs to be prosecuted in order to get the desired result.


The County Attorney should review cases of arrestees prior to their initial appearance whenever feasible, with a representative of the arresting agency, if possible; particularly in cases where the defendant is unlikely to be released on recognizance. If police reports are made available prior to (or soon after) initial appearance, charging decisions can be made immediately in many cases. In some cases, charges could be dismissed or reduced by the time of the initial appearance. This in turn would affect the judge’s decision regarding terms of release, result in more efficient expediting of cases, and consequently reduce the demand on the jail.

Increase the use of surety bonds or 10% to the clerk of court. The trend in recent years toward high cash-only bonds has been a significant factor in jail crowding.

Increase the use of plea bargaining earlier in the case; e.g., prosecutor attaches a meaningful written offer to defense with the trial information, or plea bargaining at arraignment, rather than at the pretrial conference months later. Judges should guarantee a minimum sentence with a guilty plea.

Fast-track cases of pretrial detainees, especially probationers with new charges, to reduce overcrowding. With limited jail space, cases need to be prioritized according to the resources they are using. There is nothing gained by lengthy pretrial incarceration, as pretrial detention is not to be confused with a sentence imposed upon conviction or an ultimate solution, but is rather a means of protecting the public and/or ensuring appearance in court until the case is resolved.

Enhance fewer crimes to 2nd and 3rd offense for certain minor offenses (e.g., public intox, drug possession, domestic assault, etc.).

Follow-up on unverified pretrial interviews when defendants are held and report back to the court when recommending release from jail. DCS tried this for three months in 2001; this resulted in an increase in the pretrial supervision caseload from 60 to 82. Though this was apparently more work than DCS staff had time for, a DCS staff increase funded by the County (see intensive pretrial supervision program, above) could make this a more feasible option (?) if the agreement incorporated a provision for an increase in conventional pretrial supervision.

Prioritize pre-sentence investigations on inmates. Expediting cases for incarcerated individuals whenever possible is an effective means of reducing the jail population.

Facility alteration

With a full array of jail alternatives, the current jail will face a shortage of maximum security beds, as those classified as maximum security inmates are the least likely to be released to an alternative program. Therefore there would need to be a Conversion of a medium security cellblock to maximum security. Even with the implementation of most of the jail population reduction strategies proposed here, a shortage of maximum security beds will remain the most critical problem facing the jail. With the implementation of these strategies, the populations most likely reduced will be those inmates classified as medium or minimum security; maximum security inmates are less likely to be approved for release. If a medium security cellblock (8 or 16 beds) were converted to maximum security, this problem would be alleviated; more than one medium security cellblock could be converted, if demand were sufficient and other conditions appropriate. The state Jail Inspector has affirmed that this could be done without losing double bunking.

Expand community support

DCS coordinates community organizations seeking to get involved in offenders’ lives; for example, Americorp volunteers supervise Hope House inmates on community service projects. There cannot be too much of this, because the lack of constructive community support and involvement is a major contributor to ongoing criminal tendencies. An expansion of such volunteer activities would benefit offenders greatly, who are often stigmatized to the extent that they feel they are not part of the community.

Informally supervised group homes for indigent offenders might be an effective way to reduce recidivism. For example, “wet houses,” residential facilities for homeless alcoholics, have been shown to be very cost effective, substantially reducing the burden on the criminal justice system and emergency medical facilities. One study “showed total cost rate reduction of 53% for housed participants relative to wait-list controls.” –Health Care and Public Service Use and Costs Before and After Provision of Housing for Chronically Homeless Persons With Severe Alcohol Problems, Larimer et al, 2009

Similarities Between Jail Alternatives and Alternative Medicine


Jail Alternatives and Diversion programs are inexpensive solutions that can help reduce incarceration and recidivism at lower costs compared to standard incarceration approaches. Having a diversity of programs to choose from makes it possible to have a custom package designed for each inmate. Custom tailored personalized planning ensures maximum results.

A similar approach is taken in alternative medicine. Depending on a person’s specific wellness needs, a plan is developed. This customization results in optimal effectiveness.

With alternative medicine and incarceration reduction programs, a holistic approach considers ways to prevent problems before they occur.

The reason that traditional incarceration approaches are used so heavily is because the one-size-fits all approach to throwing people in a jail cell requires little assessment of the inmate’s personal circumstances or needs. Similarly, in western medicine, broad solutions are provided rather than personalized ones. Little emphasis is placed on preventing problems and there is little if any monetary incentive on the part of institutions to reduce the demand for their services.

For example, a person who is pre-diabetic can follow a list of personalized dietary instructions and exercise guidelines to reduce or eliminate their chances of getting diabetes. If they follow the instructions, they can avoid further problems. However, what if they don’t follow the guidelines? Perhaps it’s better to give people a pill instead of a list of instructions. Similarly with high blood pressure, there are things people can do to prevent it. However, much of the time medicine is given instead because it’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

So, a potential challenge with holistic attempts to prevent illness or incarceration is that multifaceted approaches may require consistent commitment on the part of the patient/inmate.

Ultimately, personalized approaches are a good choice that empower each person to have greater control over their life.

Join our 20% by 2014 Campaign to Reduce Incarceration Rates

We Can Do Better. Justice Equity is based in Iowa City, and our county has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. [source] That’s good, but we can do better. That’s why we’re launching our 20% by 2014 campaign.

Join Us. Join with us by submitting your ideas for reducing incarceration rates. Spread the word about incarceration reduction, and start a campaign in your area to reduce incarceration. If you’re open to a healthy competition, we’re willing to compete with your community. The municipality with the greatest reduction of incarceration rates will win. The prizes of this competition are yet to be determined. Click here to view the roster of top initiatives for reducing incarceration.

Our Goal. In Johnson County, our jail was originally designed for 46 people. The national average for a population of our size would be 930. The county is proposing a jail to accommodate 195 beds (80% smaller than the national average). That’s above the current local average of 160, but below the current peak demand of 200. So, our goal is to see that the incarceration rates, and peak demand are below the maximum capacity of our local jail.

Our Methods. We have some programs already in place, like programs to reduce arrests and incarceration of students, and others being evaluated, such as alternatives to public intoxication arrests). More ideas are on the way. Follow our site and our Facebook page to watch for additional ideas on how to reduce arrests and incarceration.

Your Goal. What’s  your goal for your community? How to do plan to achieve it? Share your story here, or we’ll link to your blog. Feel free to provide videos and testimonials about how incarceration reduction initiatives are working on your area.


Questions and Answers with Bob Thompson – Crime Rate and Incarceration Rates Inconsistent

Justice Equity: Is the rate of incarceration reflective of increases in crime rates?

Bob Thompson: The jail population and the crime rate don’t match up at all. The crime rate (serious crimes, “Type A” to be precise) is stable, jail population is not.[1]

Regarding diversion programs, the only existing “alternative” program they claim might not be fully utilized due to space limitations is the Mental Health Diversion program. Pertaining to that program, the only claim they make as to the inadequacy of the current jail is that “many inmates are housed out of county which creates barriers to getting inmates released through the mental health diversion program.”

This is not a 50 million dollar problem. There should be ample opportunity to accomplish mental health screening before an inmate gets a ride to Muscatine. For that matter, Muscatine provides one complementary round trip shuttle per day, so the occasional inmate housed there who requests an evaluation should be able to get here and get one.

All other programs would occur in custody. The only proposed programs that would truly be “jail alternatives” or “diversion” programs are in the list of those which “would require additional funding/resources.” NONE of those require space in the Justice Center.[2]

Without a viable plan for controlling jail population growth NOW by getting as many people out as safely possible, I’m going with John Neff’s conclusion: There’s a good possibility the new facility might be too small the day it opens.

They seem not to realize this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to vote this down until they do what they should have done all along, and maximize use of a wide array of evidence based programs that stop or possibly reverse jail population growth.

By definition, “jail alternatives” do NOT have to occur in jail, thus they do not have to be housed in the same facility; and there’s no evidence that any “jail alternative” program cannot function without the proposed Justice Center.[3]



  1. Data and charts of crime rates for Johnson County, Iowa are provided by RecordsPedia.com
  2. Editor’s Note. There may be benefits to inmates gained by having additional space to meet with family, lawyers, or other services providers.
  3. Editors Note. To the extent that those incarcerated present a flight risk or threat to society, services provided to them may be best offered in the jail. Long-term incarceration reduction through recidivism reduction programs will likely happen in the context of the jail. It’s true that prevention programs, if effective, won’t be offered in jails, but long before a person has had trouble with the law. Having a jail prevention program in a jail seems like too little too late.

Focus turns to jail alternatives in Johnson County justice center debate

[Source: “Focus turns to jail alternatives in Johnson County justice center debate,” The Gazette, 21 April 2013]

Supporters say space is needed, but opponents say alternatives not being explored

IOWA CITY — The group meets Monday mornings in the Johnson County Attorney’s Office to see who they can try to get out of the county jail.

One would expect public defender Tom Woods and jail alternatives counselor Emily Hurst to be trying to secure an inmate’s release. But Lt. Kevin Bell of the jail and Assistant County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith?

“I’m the only prosecutor whose job it is to get people out of jail,” Zimmermann Smith said.

What they are doing is called case expediting, and on a recent Monday they went through a list of 133 inmates booked in the 92-bed jail to see who could be moved through the legal system faster.

Justice center debate

It’s one of the so-called jail diversion programs the local criminal justice community is touting in the run-up to a May 7 special election on a $43.5 million bond issue to build a criminal justice center.

The justice center would have court space and a new 195-bed jail. It’s that latter function that has drawn the most attention, with critics of the proposal saying too many people are arrested, minorities are jailed at disproportionately higher rates and the justice center proposal is too expensive.

A public vote on a bond issue failed last November, and recently county officials have begun citing jail diversion programs as examples of how they seek alternatives to keeping some people behind bars.

Examples include case expediting, mental-health programs, substance abuse treatment, drug court, a program for first-time marijuana offenders, one aimed at people caught driving with suspended licenses and others.

In the case-expediting meeting, four potential candidates were identified. In a typical example, a man was arrested for drunken driving but skipped a pretrial conference. He already had served the minimum sentence, and his next hearing could be more than a month out, so getting a written guilty plea and releasing him from jail may serve everyone best, Zimmermann Smith said.

Another three inmates had mental health needs the group thought were best addressed outside of jail.

A judge must sign off on any deals.

These programs are tied to the justice center, supporters of the project said, because there is not enough space in the jail to fully implement them. The jail was designed for 46 inmates, is now double-bunked to fit 92 and between 120 and 150 people have been in custody on most days in recent weeks.

Critics speak out

Justice center critics are not sold, however.

Jeff Cox, a University of Iowa professor who has campaigned against the justice center, said he’d support more space for jail alternative programs and the expansion of court facilities. But he believes something closer to 150 jail beds, not the 195 proposed, is the appropriate number.

“They’re using (jail alternatives) as a kind of Trojan horse to expand the number of people incarcerated,” he said.

Robert Rigg, director of the Drake University Law School’s Criminal Defense Program, also cautioned against a bigger jail, but he said diversion programs are good for inmates.

He said that’s especially true for inmates with mental health issues, which is a subject he’s writing a scholarly article on.

“You don’t want individuals who really aren’t a risk to themselves or to others being incarcerated any longer than you absolutely have to,” he said. “You want to get them into treatment or a program.”

Diversion programs help reduce the jail population, Rigg said. But on the mental health side, studies show they do not lower the recidivism rate because those inmates often are dealing with chronic issues and eventually re-offend after leaving the program, he said.

He also said boosting the programs aimed at keeping people out of jail may be a better option than building a larger jail.

“If your concern is diversion programs, I think you should focus on those first, because if you have jail space, the inclination is to fill it up,” he said.

Johnson County officials say for one, jail overcrowding causes dozens of inmates to be held out of county and away from the programs. Also, they say, there’s not room for more programs and expanding the jail is not an option.

“I may be meeting with an inmate who’s suicidal and is freaking out, and they’re doing depositions on the other side” of the wall that can be heard, said Hurst, the county jail alternatives counselor.

Programs are working

The programs are making a difference, supporters said. Case expediting, for example, started in fall 2011. The average daily jail population was six inmates lower in fiscal year 2012 compared with 2011, translating into 2,227 fewer bed dates and a savings of $158,082 that year, according to numbers provided by the county.

The mental health program, which includes referral to treatment services, has potentially saved 23,829 jail beds and $1.7 million since it started in 2005, the county said.

One of the main criticisms of justice center opponents is that student arrests are too high, especially for drinking and drug offenses, and having a record hurts their job prospects.

Iowa City defense attorney Mark Thompson often represents students, and he backed the jail diversion programs and the justice center proposal.

He said he’s had up to 100 clients go through a drinking diversion program that is no longer active and another one for first-time marijuana offenders.

In the first two years of the marijuana program, which started in July 2010, 212 of 300 enrollees had successfully completed it, according to the county.

While the arrest remains a public record, Thompson said his clients would rather complete an educational program than pay a fine or spend more time in jail.

He also said he doesn’t feel his clients are getting off easy.

“I can’t say that anybody’s really avoiding justice there, because it is reserved for someone who it’s the first time they’ve ever been in trouble,” Thompson said.

Defense attorneys and county officials declined to refer to The Gazette people who have gone through a diversion program, saying publicity would not help those people.

Good for community

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he believes the programs are good not only for inmates but also for the community by reducing the jail population and getting people treatment.

“To take a look at trying to see if there is someone else that is lingering in jail, that if there’s another way to get them out, I think is important,” he said. “It shows the public that we’re doing everything we can.”

Pulkrabek also said he thought Johnson County was doing more with diversion programs than anywhere else in Iowa.

That is not something the Iowa Judicial Branch tracks, but Rigg, the Drake professor, believes Pulkrabek may be right.

Martha Hampel of Iowa City, who is one of the leaders on the anti-justice center side, said she thought the jail diversion programs were fantastic, but she does not believe a new facility is necessary to do them.

She said alternatives could be found, like renting space, and voting down the justice center bond would force the county to think outside the box.

“I think they’re literally stuck in this giant box that is the proposed justice center,” Hampel said.

County officials said they are committed to continuing the programs no matter what happens May 7. But a justice center could allow for more mental health and substance abuse treatment in the jail and possibly the teaching of life skills to try to help keep people from returning to jail, said Jessica Peckover, the county’s jail alternatives coordinator.

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