Amid calls for local municipalities to stop sending detainees to the Oklahoma County Jail, the city council of Midwest City recently voted to end its participation with the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC), while the Edmond City Council renewed its agreement with CJAC for 10 years.
Edmond elected officials voted for the renewal at a City Council meeting Sept. 26, despite expressing concern about poor conditions and inmate deaths at the jail.
“There are some concerns and issues at the jail right now, but our agreement is to help prevent Edmondites from going down there,” Edmond Mayor Darrell Davis said. “Or, if they do go, their stay is expeditious and they’re coming home.”
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce created CJAC in 2018 to serve as a task force that makes recommendations about management of the Oklahoma County Jail and strategies to reduce its population. CJAC recommended creation of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, or the jail trust, which was founded in 2019 and now manages the jail, with CJAC providing advice and direction. A handful of government entities — Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City, Edmond and, initially, Midwest City — signed an agreement with CJAC to be involved in discussions about the jail’s operations.
Scot Rigby, Edmond’s city manager, serves on CJAC and said he believes it’s in the city’s best interest to have a “seat at the table” for those conversations.
“We just think it’s important to still be involved, provide our input, provide our guidance,” he said.
Two nights, two votes
On Sept. 26, the Edmond City Council unanimously approved a 10-year renewal of Edmond’s membership in CJAC and also voted to approve a one-year professional services agreement that contributes $17,400 to CJAC’s budget.
People arrested in Edmond city limits without a warrant taken to the Oklahoma County Detention Center:
Year 2017: 936 arrests
Year 2018: 834 arrests
Year 2019: 828 arrests
Year 2020: 609 arrests
Year 2021: 855 arrests
The following night, on Sept. 27, the City Council in Midwest City voted 5-2 to reject the proposal to renew its agreement with CJAC. Mayor Matt Dukes and Ward 2 Councilman Pat Byrne cast the only votes for the city to remain a CJAC partner.
CJAC executive director Tim Tardibono sent a statement to NonDoc the day after Midwest City’s vote, calling the council meeting “theatrical” and “chaotic.”
“We fielded many questions about jail operations and it’s a common misperception that CJAC is responsible for that role, and we simply are not,” Tardibono said. “Our mission focuses on convening many entities in the criminal justice system (…) to identify policies and laws that can be changed to create a fairer and more humane justice system.”
Tardibono said the Midwest City meeting was confusing and not conducive for an accurate conversation about his organization’s mission.
“We are disappointed that the Midwest City’s City Council has chosen to opt out of this collaborative reform process — they are taking away their participation and voice in a process that their own citizens say is of utmost importance,” Tardibono said. “We continue to be grateful for our other partners that are committed to system improvements. For 30 years, citizens have cried out for justice reform in central Oklahoma, and CJAC will continue to answer that call.”
Edmond’s renewed agreement includes an added amendment that allows the participating entities to withdraw from the contract at any time, with a 60-day notice. The amendment also allows for other municipalities to join CJAC, with the approval of each currently participating entity.
Rigby says he is confident in the work CJAC does, citing a higher use of diversionary programs and the decreasing population at the jail.
“We’re not under any illusion that, overnight, the jail system is going to change 100 percent,” Rigby said. “It’s a work in progress, and that’s why we think this committee and this group needs to continue to work on it.”
But since CJAC formed in 2018, the Oklahoma County Jail has seen an increased number of deaths, and inspections at the facility have revealed troubling activity. Some municipal officials question why tax dollars are being paid to a nebulous corporation and whether CJAC’s connection to the jail — particularly its recommendation to create the controversial jail trust — has improved conditions or even caused them to worsen. Some ponder whether it is safe for detainees facing state or felony charges to be housed at the Oklahoma County Jail at all.
MWC Councilwoman Sara Bana: ‘It’s a bad deal’
Sara Bana, the councilmember for Midwest City Ward 5, voted not to renew her community’s agreement with CJAC and has been involved in activism to encourage Edmond and others to do the same.
Bana said her concerns come in her capacity as a Midwest City resident and prison reformist.
“I think anyone that genuinely believes in criminal justice reform should get out of this deal. It’s a bad deal because its end goal and its intent is to privatize our local county criminal justice system,” Bana said. “It’s been in operation now for five years, and the results (and) the product we are seeing is extremely alarming.”
Conditions at the Oklahoma County Jail have been a problem for decades, and a federal report last year called the situation “disturbing.” So far this year, 14 people have died in the jail. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, 14 people died at the facility in 2021. Over the past year, the jail has seen escape attempts, the arrest of jail employees, and an alleged case of sexual assault.
Bana claims the Oklahoma County Jail has gotten worse since CJAC got involved.
“They came in to make the county jail and the county courthouse operations better, but the facts and the statistics showcase that things are not better,” Bana said. “Conditions have even deteriorated further. More people are dying statistically than ever before in that facility.”
She said CJAC has also breached its contract with participating entities by failing to reduce the jail’s population and streamline courthouse processes.
Although the jail’s population has fallen in recent years, Bana said the drop was not due to CJAC.
Average daily population in Oklahoma County Detention Center:
Jan. 1, 2017: 2,105 people
Jan. 1, 2018: 1,796 people
Jan. 1, 2019: 1,666 people
Jan. 1, 2020: 1,710 people
Jan. 1, 2021: 1,678 people
Jan. 1, 2022: 1,599 people
(Source: OK County Detention Center dashboard)
“If you look at the statistics, when the jail population reduction actually happened was when P.D. Taylor, the sheriff, was still there,” Bana said. “And, interestingly enough, that population reduction hit right after the decriminalization of marijuana.”
Historically, the jail had been operated by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. CJAC recommended creating a “jail trust” to oversee administration of the facility. Bana said booking processes and other operations have deteriorated since the jail trust took over in July 2019 because new staff members were not commissioned officers and could not access certain government information.
“These bureaucracies are costly and unaccountable, prone to government waste and corruption,” Bana said. “As Midwest City pulls out, I assume CJAC is going to have to look for new partners, and what I don’t want to happen is for other municipalities to be conned into this scheme.”
‘It sounds like hell on Earth’
Bana said during a Sept. 15 press conference that she would like to see people who are arrested in Midwest City taken to other jails, such as in Cleveland, Canadian or Comanche counties.
Though withdrawing from CJAC does not terminate the agreement that allows Midwest City to send detainees to the Oklahoma County Detention Center, Midwest City’s city attorney, Don Maisch, indicated at the Sept. 27 meeting that he saw no legal impediments to taking them elsewhere.
J.D. Younger, chief of the Edmond Police Department, disagreed and said he believes such a change is not possible under state statute.
“There is statutory language that says, ‘If you’re arrested for an offense in a particular county, you must go to wherever that county holds prisoners,'” Younger said. “You’ll have to have someone smarter me do the digging on the statutes, but that’s what it says.”
There are two statutes to which Younger is likely referring. Title 22, Section 190.1 states:
The person, when arrested without warrant for an offense not bailable, shall be held in custody by the sheriff of the county in which the arrest was made. If the sheriff has contracted for the custody of prisoners in the county, the contractor shall be required to hold in custody any prisoner delivered to the contractor pursuant to this section.
Another statute, Title 22, Section 459, states:
The defendant, when arrested under a warrant for an offense not bailable, shall be held in custody by the sheriff of the county in which the indictment or information is filed. If the sheriff has contracted for the custody of prisoners in the county, such contractor shall be required to hold in custody any prisoner delivered to the contractor pursuant to this section.
Bana said there have been previous cases of detainees being taken to other counties.
“For example, in my conversations with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, they said there has been precedent of this, even in Oklahoma County,” Bana said. “They referred me to the removal of the juveniles last year, because they’re now being housed at another county facility.”
Bana said she wants to continue to do research into how Midwest City might use a county detention center that “meets constitutional norms” and does not have “alarming statistics of mortality.”
“My hope is that I can get external attorneys, out of my own pocket, to do that research and bring that item back before the agenda with actual solutions and a roadmap of how that can be achieved,” Bana said.
The current debate over whether cities should be members of CJAC is not Bana’s first clash with the organization.
In November 2021, the jail trust approved CJAC’s recommendation to construct a new county jail to replace the decrepit 13-story tower. In the June primary election, more than 59 percent of voters approved the use of $260 million in bonds to build a new facility.
The People’s Council for Criminal Justice Reform, led by Bana and others, opposed the construction of a new jail, arguing it will have a higher prisoner capacity than the current facility and will cost more than its $300 million estimate. Additionally, the group does not trust the jail trust or Oklahoma County Jail CEO Greg Williams to operate the new facility successfully.
An Edmond resident, private investigator and former public defender, Shaun Hittle, said he believes Edmond should look for alternative options to house arrestees, instead of sending them to the Oklahoma County Jail.
“We’ve had 14 people die in the Oklahoma County Jail this year, and from the continual stories that come out about that place, it sounds like hell on Earth. I mean, it sounds like the worst place in the United States,” Hittle said. “As a community in Edmond, we’re sending our citizens to that place. And these are people who have just been accused of crimes, they have not been convicted of anything. I realize it’s a very complicated issue, but if there are other options and other things that we can explore to prevent our people from going to that jail, we absolutely should be doing that.”
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Edmond City Council members confident in CJAC agreement
Though the Edmond City Council voted to continue the city’s involvement with CJAC, Ward 1 Councilman David Chapman said he voted in favor because he sees no other options.
“I’m not satisfied with the performance, but I’m willing to give them a chance because I don’t think we have a good choice,” Chapman said. “We’ve got to be a partner at that thing, and we’ve got to help them where we can to do better.”
Ward 2 Councilman Josh Moore said he voted to renew because he felt that he heard a “sincere goal” from CJAC’s director, Tim Tardibono, during the City Council’s discussion.
“I just felt the sincerity of trying to improve the situation, and make it better, and make it as good as it can be,” Moore said.
Asked whether he would be interested in exploring the option of sending Edmond detainees to another county detention center, Moore said the issue would need to be researched thoroughly.
“It would take a lot of due diligence and investigation. If that were the case, I’d be interested in what is the trade-off?” Moore said. “And is it an equal to or better trade-off than what we’re working with now?”
Chapman said he would be willing to look at the option of contracting with another county jail, but he believes the answer is to “fix the Oklahoma County system.”
“That’s who we are and that’s where we participate. We’ve got to somehow do what we can to help them get better,” Chapman said.
Ward 4 Councilwoman Stacie Peterson said Edmond leaders “want to be a part of any discussion” involving the Oklahoma County Jail.
“If you want change, you have to be involved,” Peterson said. “You cannot do it from the outside.”
Following the Edmond City Council’s renewal of the interlocal agreement with CJAC, Ward 3 Councilwoman Christin Mugg said she has “no hesitation in participating” with CJAC.
“I think it’s in our best interest to be at the table in those discussions,” Mugg said.
Mugg said she would even like to see other partners enter into the agreement.