State aid necessity for corrections facility

A new facility to house offenders serving time on work release and programs that oversee home detention is one step closer to being built. 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 working on designing a new facility after getting 1.8 acres of land from Johnson Memorial Hospital.

Now the county needs to approve plans 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.

The hospital recently donated 1.8 acres of land at Drake and Hospital roads, across the street from the jail and near the current community corrections facility. Officials are talking about a building that would increase from 100 beds to 170 and add classroom and instructional space for in-house programs.

More space is needed because the state recently overhauled the criminal code, which limits the number of people who can be sent to state prisons. 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.

“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,” community corrections director Albert Hessman said.

Nearly everyone agrees on the need for an expanded community corrections center, but the cost shouldn’t be shouldered by Johnson County taxpayers alone. When the legislature changed state law to require some convicted offenders to spend time in jail instead of a state facility, it saved the state from having to build as much prison space. But it simply shifted the burden to the counties and provided no money to expand facilities to handle the increased prisoner population.

This constitutes an unfunded mandate.

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 are about $20 per day. The state also is discussing increasing funding for local community corrections programs. Hessman said the goal would be to continue to fund community corrections without county tax dollars.

But someone still has to pay to erect the new building.

We urge members of the General Assembly to examine this situation during the next session and develop a program that will give counties the support they need to expand their correctional facilities so that they can effectively handle the increased prisoner population.

At issue

Because more prisoners will serve time in Johnson County, a larger community corrections facility is needed.

Our point

The state needs to help pay for construction since the increased prisoner population is due to changes in state law.