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Scott County pushes ahead with a proposal to use pandemic funds to build a juvenile detention center, despite community opposition

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Kate Payne / IPR
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A coalition of local activists, social justice organizations and faith leaders are condemning a proposal by the Scott County Board of Supervisors to use pandemic relief funds to build a new juvenile detention center. Michael Guster, president of the Davenport chapter of the NAACP, has called the plan "morally wrong".

The Scott County Board of Supervisors is pushing ahead with a plan to use pandemic relief funds to build a new juvenile detention center. That’s despite organized opposition from advocates who say the plan is an immoral and ineffective way to address troubled youth.

Activists, faith leaders, social service providers and local officials crowded into the Friends of MLK Interpretive Center in Davenport on Tuesday to condemn a proposal to use COVID-19 relief funds to more than double the size of its juvenile detention facility.

“Why does Scott County officials want to build this humongous facility and not provide the funding to help our children? The question is why,” said Michael Guster, president of the Davenport chapter of the NAACP. “It is morally wrong to be do what we’re doing in Scott County.”

Scott County is considering spending nearly a third of its funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, as much as $10 million, to build the new facility, which would be designed to hold 40 beds with the ability to expand to 60 beds, which would more than triple the county’s current capacity of 18 beds.

Advocates say the plan would reinforce Iowa’s racial disparities in youth incarceration, which are already among the highest in the country, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project.

In a report published earlier this year, the advocacy group found that Iowa incarcerated Black youth at a rate nearly 10 times that of white youth, and that the disparities have increased by 75 percent in recent years.

Local leaders in Scott County say systemic issues of poverty, disinvestment and prejudice in their community are driving much of the statewide disparity.

“This system is broken,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP. “When our youth are in crisis, our families are in crisis. And when our families are in crisis, our community is in crisis. Our community is in crisis. Not just a one-time crisis but a years-long nightmare. And we have to wake up.”

“It is morally wrong to be do what we’re doing in Scott County.”
-Michael Guster, president Davenport NAACP

Data from the Iowa Department of Human Rights shows that Scott County is out of step with the state’s other large counties.

According to the Quad-City Times, Scott County sent more than 500 children to adult court between 2016 and 2019, a dramatically higher number than Polk County, which tried 69 children as adults during the same time period, despite having roughly three times the youth population.

A report published by the IDHR in November 2020 shows that Iowa’s juvenile justice continues to reinforce racial disparities, in referring children to the juvenile court system, in detaining them and in prosecuting them as adults.

In addition to opposing the proposal, the Davenport NAACP has called on the IDHR to conduct an audit of Scott County’s juvenile justice system, a step which the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP supports as well. A coalition of local groups are also calling on the county to instead invest in existing youth outreach and neighborhood-based organizations that have a track record of working with underserved communities, especially Black and Latino youth.

"When our youth are in crisis, our families are in crisis. And when our families are in crisis, our community is in crisis. Our community is in crisis. Not just a one-time crisis but a years-long nightmare. And we have to wake up."
-Betty Andrews, president, Iowa-Nebraska NAACP

Avery Pearl works for the local nonprofit Project Renewal, which provides mentorship and support to kids and their families, often serving children from the time they’re in kindergarten all the way through high school, according to Pearl. At the press conference Tuesday, Pearl called on the county to invest in prevention and diversion, instead of punishment, which he sees as the “last option”.

“Expanding our current juvenile justice system without addressing the disparities within it will only add fuel to the fire and place more Black children under the control of the state,” Pearl said. “We are failing the children in our community, specifically the Black ones, and they need our community leaders to step up and resolve the root causes of these disparities.”

Were some of the federal funds allocated to groups like Project Renewal, Pearl says he and his colleagues could reach more kids and families and prevent future involvement in the criminal justice system.

Pearl says the issue is personal: he says one of the proposed sites where the new facility could be built is across the street from his organization, which he says would be devastating for the children they serve.

“It would build hopelessness and despair, those same traits that lead to criminality,” Pearl said. “Seeing that every day in the midst of still going through this pandemic? I really cannot explain what that would do.”

The majority-Republican Board of Supervisors is moving forward with the proposal, despite a national analyst and state juvenile justice officials criticizing the facility as unnecessarily large and out of step with national best practices, according to the Quad-City Times. Critics say the plan would also violate Iowa law, which strictly limits the number of juvenile detention beds allowed in the state. All 272 beds are currently accounted for.

County Supervisor Ken Croken, a Democrat who is opposed to building a 40 bed facility but acknowledges a new center is needed, told reporters Tuesday that county officials would need to secure a change in Iowa Code or to broker a deal with other juvenile detention facilities to reallocate their beds in order to use the expanded center.

While advocates drove home their arguments that the proposed facility would be ineffective, expensive and legally impermissible, above all they said the plan is morally wrong.

“It is a very, very short-sighted and mean-spirited look at our children,” said Rich Hendricks, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities. “Law and order, lock ‘em up may win you some votes but it is destroying our community.”

The Scott County Board of Supervisors is slated to review proposals on the use of ARPA funds at a meeting on November 22 at 9 a.m.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter