County closer to new corrections facility

A long-discussed new facility to house offenders serving time on work release and programs that oversee home detention is one step closer to being built after more than an acre of land was donated to the county.

The county has wanted to expand or replace the 17-year-old pole barn that houses the community corrections program for years, and it is now working on designing a new facility after getting 1.8 acres of land from Johnson Memorial Hospital.

Next up: The county needs to finalize and approve plans for the new building and figure out how to pay for it. The new facility is estimated to cost $4 million to $5 million, and officials expect to borrow money to pay for it, which could mean a tax increase. Construction might not start for two years or longer.

Community corrections oversees programs such as work release, home detention, day reporting and community service and also connects offenders with rehabilitation programs, such as anger management, family programs and classes that teach people how to make better decisions.

Johnson Memorial Hospital recently donated 1.8 acres of land at the corner of Drake and Hospital roads, across the street from the jail and near the current community corrections facility. Building plans are being discussed, and although nothing is on paper yet, officials are talking about a $4 million to $5 million building that would increase from 100 beds to 170 and add new classroom and instructional space for in-house programs.

More space is needed now because the state recently overhauled the criminal code, which reduced sentences for most crimes and limits the amount of people who can be sent to state prisons, community corrections director Albert Hessman said. Overcrowding is a frequent problem at the Johnson County Jail, so alternative programs such as work release and home detention could be leaned on more heavily in the future for low-risk offenders, he said.

“They are limiting who can and can’t come to the (Department of Correction), so there is going to be more demand locally for what is going to happen with people,” Hessman said.

Even without an increase in the number of offenders, the current center has space limitations, Hessman said. The center only has 10 out of 100 beds for female offenders, although a higher percentage of women are now committing crimes than in the past, Hessman said. The center has been full at times but typically has 60 to 70 offenders housed there on work release, where they can go to their jobs during the day but have to return to the center afterward.

The center also lacks classroom space, which makes it more difficult to help offenders with employment education, such as online résumé building, Hessman said. Classes and programs that offenders have to take as part of their sentences or rehabilitation efforts are handled by other groups, meaning people have to attend those off-site, he said. With new classrooms, those programs could be done at the new community corrections center, and the county could potentially offer new programs.

“Space-wise, it’s very difficult to pull some of that off. You can’t get a group of people in any one space at any one time. Our space is really cramped,” Hessman said.

Improving programs is a main goal for the county, since offenders have typically committed their first offense or minor crimes. If the county can improve the number and quality of its programs, that could have a long-term benefit in keeping people from committing more crimes in the future, Commissioner Ron West said.

About half of all people sent to local jails or state prisons have some sort of mental health issue, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. About half of inmates show signs of mania, increased energy or irritability, while issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, depression and past physical or sexual abuse are also common, the report showed.

Johnson County also needs to provide more mental health services, and by expanding the community corrections center the county also could be able to host offenders from neighboring counties too, West said.

“The focus now is on trying to give those people help to help solve some of those mental health issues they’re confronted with and get them back to being productive citizens,” West said.

The county doesn’t use tax dollars to support the community corrections programs. Community corrections is funded through state funding from the Department of Correction and fees paid by offenders enrolled in programs, which typically is about $20 per day, Hessman said. The state also is discussing increasing funding for local community corrections programs. The goal would be to continue to fund community corrections without county tax dollars, Hessman said.

“There’s all kinds of variables that change everything, but our intent is not to have county funding poured in,” he said.

By the numbers

Johnson County recently had 1.8 acres of land donated, which will likely become the site of a new community corrections facility in the future. Here’s what’s being considered:

100: Current capacity of the community corrections center

170: Proposed capacity for new center

10: Beds for female offenders now

25 to 30: Proposed beds for females in the new center

$4 to $5 million: Estimated cost to build a new community corrections center