Civil rights group objects to using federal COVID aid for jails

By: - January 21, 2023 5:55 am

The ACLU wants to U.S. Treasury to stop the use of American Rescue Plan Act dollars to build or expand correctional facilities. (Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the Treasury Department to take a harder line on states and local governments using federal American Rescue Plan Act money to build and expand correctional facilities.

One of the projects it cited is in Scott County, Iowa, where local officials had previously considered using the federal money for a new juvenile detention center.

The ACLU is asking the Treasury’s office of inspector general to investigate and reiterate to governments “that they may not use those funds to build or expand jails, prisons or other detention facilities and that there will be consequences for doing so.”

The money, the ACLU says, is intended to help governments respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter included the signatures of ACLU officials in nine states, including Iowa.

In Scott County supervisors decided last fall not to use American Rescue Plan funds for the detention center, instead choosing to use their own capital improvement money. However, officials in the county say they have the legal right to do so if they want, and they have not closed the door to the possibility if the money is needed in the future.

Scott County concluded it would be legal to use American Rescue Plan Act for its Youth Justice and Rehabilitation Center, shown here in a rendering, but ultimately decided not to use the federal dollars. (Illustration courtesy of Scott County)

County supervisors say their legal advisers have reviewed the matter and said the project is eligible. The county broke ground on the $27 million Youth Justice and Rehabilitation Center in October. Construction is expected to be completed next year. The county had previously considered using about $7 million in ARPA funds for the center.

Ken Beck, chairman of the Scott County Board, declined comment Friday on the ACLU letter.

The Treasury Department has given conflicting signals about the legality of using ARPA funds for the Scott County project.

In an article in The Nation magazine last July, an official in the department’s inspector general’s office said the county’s intended use of ARPA funds was not permissible. However, in September, the Quad-City Times reported that the department cleared the way for use of the funds and that it said The Nation was mistakenly given information that conflated two separate parts of the law.

In its letter, dated Jan. 18, the ACLU says the treasury department “must give clear guidance on what is prohibited under each of these categories.”

Pete McRoberts, policy director for the ACLU of Iowa, said in an interview this week that it’s not legal to use ARPA funds for the Scott County project. The ACLU, along with other groups, had previously objected to the county.

“We could read the law,” McRoberts said Thursday.

The ACLU of Iowa also has objected to expansion of the facility, McRoberts said, because it allows the county to incarcerate more juveniles, which is harmful, especially on racial grounds. The organization has cited figures saying that in Scott County “1 out of every 22 Black children is detained, versus 1 out of every 457 white children.”

County officials have said they have an obligation to detain juveniles who are ordered held by the court system, and that it is better to have them in the community rather than send them to facilities in other parts of the state.

The new facility would essentially double the number of beds and replace a four-decade old juvenile facility in downtown Davenport that all sides agree is inadequate.

Other projects cited by the ACLU in its letter are in Maine, Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Alabama. The Missouri project is St. Charles County’s plan to use $57.25 million to expand its county jail.

In Alabama, the state is building two new 4,000 bed prisons for men, with plans for a future women’s prison. It plans to use $400 million in ARPA funds, 20% of its total allocation, the ACLU said.

The ACLU says the federal government has gone after individuals for misuse of ARPA funds, including criminally charging more than 1,000. But it says the federal government hasn’t exercised the same kind of scrutiny with state and local governments.

“The focus on investigating and acting against those who have misused COVID-19-related funding should include state and local government entities, and not be limited to individual bad actors,” the ACLU letter said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, Iowa, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.