Iowa City and the Jail

Author's note: This document is now quite dated, and is reproduced here mostly for its statistical information. Some links may be dead. If time allows, I will update the tables with UCR stats from 2001-2003. At a glance, it appears that arrest rates for drug, OWI and public intox have gone down somewhat, while liquor law violations are still way up there.Local media reports that PAULA (possession of alcohol under the legal age) have recently declined; however, Iowa City arrests for all these offenses are still far higher, per capita, than any other jurisdiction in Iowa.

The Johnson County Jail Space and Services Task Force studied the jail crowding problem at length; it is obvious that most drug and alcohol arrests are not the major factor in jail crowding, since most of these arrestees are merely overnight guests. Crowding could be alleviated somewhat by implementing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders; however, Johnson County voters will be presented with a bond referendum for a new jail in the near future.

by Bob Thompson

Jail crowding has been an ongoing problem in Johnson County for a long time. In November 2000, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors put a jail bond proposal on the ballot to build a new jail, which might have cost approximately 20 million dollars. The proposal needed 60% approval by voters to pass, and was defeated with 65% of voters rejecting it; this in spite of strong endorsement for the jail by the media, local government, and organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters. The jail crowding problem has not gone away, but has been alleviated somewhat by efforts to reduce arrest rates, house inmates in the Linn County Jail, and implement sentencing alternatives.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors has hired the State Public Policy Group to coordinate a study of the jail problem. A task force has been formed to determine Johnson County's jail space and service needs. For details, see the June 4th Press-Citizen article. I was asked by Citizens for Alternatives to the New Jail to represent them on the task force. I accepted. Sara Epstein is the other task force representative for CANJ.

This is a complex, contentious issue. My own efforts to investigate the root causes have led to more questions than answers. My original concern for this issue stems from my street-sense of the big picture; as a local musician, I began to get a sense that law enforcement practices in Iowa City were changing dramatically in the early 90s. Tensions built up, but remained confined to furtive murmurs of discontent on the street, until ICPD officer Jeffrey Gillaspey shot Eric Shaw in 1996. That was a defining moment in Iowa City law enforcement history. Suddenly all the folks with complaints about police had a vehicle to vent their frustrations. To get a sense of this, I recommend that the reader check out this partial transcript of the Iowa City Council meeting immediately after that incident.

Understanding the changes in local police policy that have occurred in the last decade are critical to understanding this issue. The reader must understand that this is not an issue that can be decided in 30 seconds. The appropriate approach is to provide the public with accurate information, in the hope that the residents of Johnson County will take the time to learn and think, and that the community might have intelligent discourse on this issue. I realize that this is unrealistic; nevertheless, it's the only way that we can arrive at a lasting solution to this problem.

Statistics, Statistics, Statistics

CSG Consultants to Neumann Monson PC did a study of the jail problem in 1999. The statistics they supplied show an alarming trend. 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). The table below shows the total inmates booked into the jail between 1982 and 1998.

Total inmates booked into the Johnson County Jail
(years are fiscal years beginning July 1 and ending June 30.)

% change


(figures not available)
(figures not available)
5,072 .

Why the huge increase?

It is imperative to determine the causes of this dramatic increase, if we are to properly understand the problem. The Iowa City Press-Citizen has provided a timeline of Johnson County jail history which might be a good place to start.

Officials are quick to point out that mandatory minimum sentences for OWI and drug offenses have played a role in jail overcrowding. Officials are not quite so quick to point out the unwritten policies that have played a role in jail overcrowding. Statistics, again, provide a clue to what is really happening.

I made a small attempt, in the limited free time I have available, to analyze some data in order to understand what is going on. I looked at data made available by the Uniform Crime Report for FY 2000, from here and here; I did a comparison of crime statistics for FY 2000 for the following communities: Iowa City, Coralville, Cedar Falls, Ames, and Des Moines; and campus police for UI, UNI, and ISU. I'm told the results are striking; they certainly show that something radically different is going on here. Unfortunately, this is only a meager portion of the numbers that will need to be absorbed before a clear picture will emerge. As I get time, I intend to look at more data; hopefully the task force's resources will be of some help in this endeavor.

The first table below represents total reported serious crimes, which include violent crime, property crime, murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. This shows that Iowa City has a relatively low rate of serious crime.

Note: The important numbers to look at on these tables are the rates per 100,000, which are easily used to compare the per capita rates between law enforcement agencies; this number is derived by comparing the number of arrests with the population of the particular jurisdiction.

Total reported serious crimes, FY 2000

Iowa City Coralville Ames Cedar Falls Des Moines UI ISU UNI
3632.2 4918.5 3936.5 3296.1 7004.0 5336.5 3988.0 3296.1
2044 658 1599 997 13640 333 373 175

I then looked at the arrest statistics for those same agencies in the same fiscal year (2000). The next table shows the total reported arrests for all Group A offenses ((murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, various forms of sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, intimidation, arson, blackmail, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, fraud, stolen property offenses, vandalism, drug/narc violation, drug equipment violations, incest, pornography, gambling offenses, prostitution, bribery, WPNS violation). This shows that Iowa City has a not-so-bad rate of serious crime.

Group A Reported Arrests, FY 2000

Iowa City Coralville Ames Cedar Falls Des Moines UI ISU UNI
2992.5 4462.6 487.7 1861.3 2703.5 3573.7 74.8 823.5
1684 597 197 563 5265 223 7 41

This seemed like a rather striking contrast, so I did a breakdown of the numbers for drug/narc arrests from the Group A stats (no breakdown available here for type of violation).

Drug/Narc arrests, FY 2000

Iowa City Coralville Ames Cedar Falls Des Moines UI ISU UNI
1220.8 904.5 71.8 281.0 510.9 1762.8 0.0 220.9
687 121 29 85 995 110 0 11

It thus seems obvious that there is a striking difference in drug enforcement priorities between ICPD/UI Campus Police and the other agencies studied, which accounts for much of the radical difference in Group A arrests.

Now we go to total Group B arrests for the same period. Group B offenses in the UCR include bad checks, curfew/loitering, disorderly conduct, OWI, public intox, family offenses, liquor law violations, runaway, trespass, and "all other."

Group B arrests, FY 2000

Iowa City Coralville Ames Cedar Falls Des Moines UI ISU UNI
8639.2 2593.8 1440.9 1299.3 962.3 11,842.9 3913.2 1787.5
4862 347 582 393 1874 739 366 89

This is simply astounding! Why were ICPD/UI Campus Police arrests so out of line with the other agencies? Is Iowa City possessed by demons? Is there something funny in the water? I've been a professional musician for the last 25 years, and am no stranger to the nightlife in most towns in Iowa; and I've been to many, if not most, of the larger towns in the Midwest. My observation is that there isn't much difference in the number of people getting messed up here and anywhere else. What's different is that most of the people getting messed up here are doing it in a relatively small area. This is also an area that has extremely high property values, and is largely owned and/or operated by a small, highly influential group of shakers and movers who have a disproportionate amount of influence over the Iowa City government. This makes two things possible: first, it enables a select group of property owners to exert a disproportionate influence on police policy; second, it makes it very easy for the police to concentrate their efforts on behalf of this small, select group upon the small area in question.

So let's break down the Group B arrest rates a little. Here are the numbers for public intox arrests:

Total Arrests for Public Intox, FY 2000

Iowa City Coralville Ames Cedar Falls Des Moines UI ISU UNI
2054.2 470.9 180.7 393.4 408.7 4214.7 577.4 642.7
1156 63 73 119 796 263 54 32

OK, if that doesn't show the radical differences in the way police spend their workday, then I've lost you. Let's break it down a bit more, if you still don't believe me; here's the numbers for liquor law violations within the Group B stats:

Total Arrests for Liquor Law Violations, FY 2000

Iowa City Coralville Ames Cedar Falls Des Moines UI ISU UNI
2372.3 687.7 567.0 145.5 9.8 3717.9 1432.7 361.5
1335 92 229 44 19 232 134 18

If you've made it this far into this page, you've likely come to the same conclusion I have: Iowa City law enforcement policy is radically different from most other places. The question is, why? Is this necessary? Are the people here so radically different, or are the people in charge the ones who are radically different? I can't conclude that the people here are radically different, and I've been to lots of places. As a bar band musician, I've been in the nightlife in many towns in the Midwest and elsewhere, and I don't see a huge difference between the people here and people anywhere else.

What's different here is that most of the nightlife activity is occurring in one relatively small area. This area is in close proximity with the lion's share of student residences; this creates a source of frustration for homeowners in that area who don't want to live with the party noise. It also makes downtown an attractive location for bars, and most of the bars are doing quite well. Many non-bar businesses are struggling downtown, and many have relocated or gone out of business. The people who have the most say in Iowa City about policy is a small group that generally doesn't include bars in its vision of what downtown should be like. The difference between this community and the others studied is that this area (downtown IC and the areas immediately surrounding downtown) is the central area of contention in a small cultural/economic clash of interests. In the other communities used as comparisons, this isn't so much the case. Law enforcement has become a major player in the game for control over this piece of real estate. I believe that there is a high level of influence on public policy being exercised on behalf of relatively few in an attempt to suppress the party atmosphere of downtown. This problem, limited to a small area of Iowa City, is a significant factor in jail overcrowding. UI campus police deserve some of the credit as well: their arrests in FY 2000 were equivalent to about 10% of the entire population of the dorms!

There is some reason for hope that things might be changing somewhat. Arrests by the ICPD dropped by about 12% between FY 2000 and FY 2001; arrests by UI campus police decreased about 23% in the same period (see the chart provided by the Sheriff's Department--this is a PDF document, you need Adobe Acrobat to view it). The reasons for this aren't immediately clear. The Uniform Crime Report for FY 2001 should be available soon, and I plan to gather more information as time allows.

The high number of overnight guests is only one of the factors contributing to the jail overcrowding problem. There are many more factors contributing to jail crowding; the most severe problem is the number of pretrial inmates. Bonds are intentionally set high enough so that they cannot get out. Many of these people probably shouldn't get out of jail; others remain in custody because of a lack of other options, or perhaps a distorted sense of what constitutes a threat to public safety. Many pretrial inmates have violated the terms of their parole by committing other crimes; though the DCS has the option of citing, rather than arresting, these people, they usually opt for arrest. If a person is arrested for a minor offense such as 3rd or subsequent public intox, and has a criminal record or is homeless, they can expect to spend at least 45 days in jail. The Kirkwood OWI class, which provided a sentencing alternative to jail time for first time OWI offenders, was recently cut back dramatically by the Sheriff's department (see the Press-Citizen article). People who fail to appear at a court date are arrested and jailed; often, these people are merely irresponsible, rather than a real threat to public safety. A large number of people in jail have serious substance abuse or mental health issues; there is scant funding to deal with these problems.