Summary. The new Johnson County Justice Center will help Johnson County continue to have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation by offering expanded education and services on-site with effective diversion initiatives. However, you must vote yes on November 6 for the new Justice Center to be approved. Click here to learn more and get involved.

U.S. Incarceration Rates. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more people in prison than war-torn countries and dictatorships.  The average rate of incarceration in the U.S. is about 500 to 700 people for every 100,000 depending on the study referenced. [Source 1, Source 2]

Causes. There are many possible contributing factors to the high incarceration rates in the U.S.

  • Crime Rates. Some claim our high incarceration rates are a result of the high crime rates in the United States, which are among the highest in the world. [Source 1]
  • Racism. Statistically, a disproportionate number of people in prison are minorities and people of color. Data indicates that people of color are more likely to get stiffer sentences for equal crimes. A quick glance at the U.S. incarceration map reveals that an unusually high number of people are incarcerated in states with a history of race-related hate crimes, such as Louisiana (853:100,000), Mississippi (735:100,000), and Alabama (634:100,000). The data suggests that the criminal justice system may be abused in some states and used as a mechanism for oppressing people of color. [Source: The New Jim Crow] Some would argue that our justice system is not racist, but instead our society creates conditions that produce criminal behavior outcomes by severely underfunding schools and other necessary social service resources in neighborhoods with high minority populations.
  • War on Drugs. One reason for the high incarceration rates in the U.S. seems to be the failed war on drugs. The alcohol industry spends millions of dollars promoting alcohol consumption, then police arrest people who consume too much. Marijuana is now classified as equal to drugs like Heroin, and penalties for possession and distribution are severe. States where marijuana had been legalized are now being targeted by federal agents who refuse to accept marijuana legalization and arrest people anyway. Stiffer penalties being enforced for lesser crimes, such as a reduction in the minimum blood alcohol content for OWI. All of these result in higher rates of incarceration.
  • Mental Illness. Mental illness is sometimes a primary factor in behavioral issues that lead to criminal activity. As a result, people who should be treated for mental illness are undiagnosed and incarcerated.
  • Safer Streets. Those who defend our high incarceration rates would argue that communities in the U.S. are safer than anywhere in the world because we have the necessary law enforcement to arrest criminals and enforce the law. They would also argue that in the U.S. we have a lower tolerance of corruption and crime compared to other countries. For example, Mexico’s drug law reforms have resulted in fewer arrests simply because many drugs once illegal are now legal.

Regardless of the reasons, the United States has a crisis of mass incarceration that’s become too costly to sustain, and the inability of corrections facilities to successfully make corrections in people’s lives isn’t helping. This has many people demanding that we find ways to bring our incarceration rates down.

The state of Iowa has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the nation, 291 per 100,000 people. (source) In Johnson County, Iowa, with a population of over 100,000 (source PDF) the jail facility for the county was originally built in 1981 to accommodate 46 inmates.

To bring our jail up to the Iowa incarceration average demand for our population, we would need a jail with about 290 beds. By comparison, if we were in Louisiana, there would be about 853 people incarcerated for a population equal to ours. However, those involved in law enforcement for Johnson County believe that the proposed 243-bed jail will be sufficient for many years to come.

Reducing Incarceration Rates. Many people are optimistic about building a smaller jail in Johnson County because of a multifaceted initiative implementing alternatives and treatments to reduce incarceration rates. (Source: Alternatives and Treatments Opportunities Report). If these programs continue to work as they have been, a 243-bed jail instead of a 290-bed jail should be sufficient.

  • Case Expediting. Thousands of dollars are saved by speeding up the processing of cases and reducing time in jail.
  • Discretionary Reward / Incentive Program. Inmates can have sentences reduced by as much as 20%, reducing jail time significantly. This results in reduced costs.
  • Diversion Programs for Drug and Alcohol Cases. The County Attorney’s Office implemented a marijuana diversion program in July 2010 and an alcohol diversion program in January 2011. These initiatives replace jail time with treatment and education programs.
  • 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.
  • Drug Court. A Drug Court provides extensive drug treatment, supervision, and weekly contact with the judge and Drug Court team. This reduces recidivism and saves millions of dollars.
  • Electronic Home Arrest / Work Release. This allows inmates to return to work. Rather than costing tax payer dollars, inmates return to work and become productive taxpaying members of society.
  • Intensive Probation Supervision. This program allows for higher risk inmates to be supervised more closely while on probation resulting in fewer days in jail.
  • Mental Health Screening and Diversion. This program is calculated to save approximately 1.3 million dollars per year by providing the necessary mental health services to hundreds of people who given the proper care can return to a normal life.
  • Substance Abuse Evaluations and Treatment. It’s been determined that many people are incarcerated for what seem to be uniquely drug-related crimes. By removing the drug influence from people’s lives, with treatment, they can return to a normal productive life.

Enhancements to Jail Facility. The Johnson County Justice Center will allow for the consideration of the following possible enhancements to the county jail.

  • Extra space for education and treatment programs at the jail.
  • Education / classroom space.
  • Volunteer space for training on Life Skills, GED, Religious, Job preparation, etc.
  • Consultation space for legal representation, religious activities/clergy, probation/parole, substance abuse / mental health interviews.
  • Space for religious services and programs.
  • Additional visiting space. Current space is limited to four inmates at a time. Additional waiting area is needed for visitors.
  • Clinic space and facilities for on-site medical and dental services.
  • Recreation / exercise space is needed inside and outside the jail facility.
  • Library space.
  • Increased flexibility to isolate inmates.
  • Separate space for juveniles adjudicated to adult court who require sight and sound isolation.

Further Reading. The links below are to articles with more information about the proposed Johnson County Justice Center.