The critique of the justice center ballot issue has mostly been a critique of the larger justice system itself. It's a critique I largely agree with. Too many people in our society are punished for the wrong reasons, and too many of the incarcerated are black or brown or poor.
It's also a local problem, with the Iowa City Police Department and Campus Security over-zealously pursuing minor drug and alcohol crimes, over-enforcing bad laws that many of us don't even believe should BE laws. We also have a statistically significant driving while black problem that needs to stop.
I have attended justice center meetings off and on for several years. I have long been convinced of the actual need, but I had intended to vote no because of this other set of issues. I really, really wanted the existing jail to be full of drunk college students and harmless pot smokers.
The problem is, that's not true. And I can't in intellectual honesty oppose the justice center anymore. Today I'm making the biggest liberal flip-flop since Birkenstocks were invented.
Local prosecutors, the sheriff, and the courts are caught in the middle between bad laws and bad enforcement, with most of the responsibility and little of the discretion. The current sheriff and county attorney have done far more to explore jail altenatives for mental health and substance abuse than their predecessors. Not enough for me; I still think the "alternative" the average pot smoker needs is to be left alone. But within the framework of existing law, our alternatives program is a good one. Unfortunately, it's maxed out due to lack of space. And many people who would otherwise be eligible are shipped out to all points of the compass and unable to participate.
Opponents charge that more cell space will encourage more arrests - and we need to watch our police department and their bosses, the city council, carefully on that. But more cell space will also keep those awaiting their day in court closer to family and friends who can offer emotional support, and allow the accused better access to their attorneys. More meeting areas will mean more privacy for the accused to consult with their lawyers; right now this happens in the lobby. More courtrooms will mean more judges and speedier trials, which for the innocent will mean speedier returns home.
This is about safety for the public: for jurors, for abuse victims, for witnesses, and for the accused. The new secure entrance will keep the public safer, and secure passage from the jail to the courtroom will protect the public from the genuinely dangerous. Expanded and more modern cell areas will also protect the accused from other inmates who could do them harm.
Our old courthouse is a beautiful historic site, but it offers literally a back door to justice for the disabled. New courtrooms in the new part of the complex will give our justice center true ADA accessibility to most court functions.
A protest no vote sends a muddled message: No because of the dollar amount? No because of the justice system? We can argue about the big picture another day. And we should.
This vote, this ballot issue, is about tangible things that will bring real world justice to the accused, the victims, the general public, and yes, even the guilty. And the clear message is yes. Please join me in flipping your ballot and voting Yes on the justice center.