By Traci Chapman
EL RENO – For years, the Canadian County Jail was thought of as a headache to both those charged with overseeing it and those forced to deal with the issues created by a facility dating back to 1984 that had become what they called hopelessly overcrowded.
After the situation came to a head with a failed election that fell short in funding a plan designed to address those issues, former Sheriff Randall Edwards used some creative negotiating to implement a plan that would keep the county off the hot seat while officials searched for a more workable facility, pushing capacity to 196 prisoners.
It was a move seen as a “temporary fix,” officials said, but it started to ease the overcrowding that for years plagued the facility.
After his election, Sheriff Chris West continued the outlying county prisoner housing contracts while searching for more ways to not only ease overcrowding but also address other issues facing courthouse personnel.
That includes dockets clogged with administrative hearings for non-violent offenders and sentences that included weekend sentences and jail time for minor cases and unpaid fees.
That’s when yet another official made what some of his colleagues thought of as a bold move, West said.
In the wake of voters’ 2016 passage of State Question 780, Canadian County District Judge Paul Hesse took a look at the theories behind that question, the reclassification of drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“That eliminated prison time for personal use-controlled substance charges,” Sheriff West said. “While it posed something law enforcement wasn’t necessarily thrilled about it, it did signal a change that saw Oklahoma as the most punitive state across the country for simple drug possession, something that kept those convictions the most common reason for state prison admissions – more than violent crime.”
Judge Hesse in 2018 took the state question a step further, studying both the defendant’s personal circumstances and what they were charged with.
Combining various crimes in a single bond allowed more defendants to post bond. It also changed longtime county practices that resulted in individuals sitting in jail for months waiting for trial on relatively minor crimes.
“Judge Hesse regularly reviews the jail roster and assesses whether an arrestee is a threat to the community or a flight risk – if neither, he will consider releasing them on a personal recognizance bond,” West said. “Also, under the law veterans are now given some additional consideration when bonding out of jail, making that more realistic for some crimes.”
It was Court Clerk Marie Hirst who was the final piece of the puzzle facing officials.
Hirst agreed with Hesse’s assessment the county should be more proactive in looking at situations and defendants on a case-by-case basis.
It bothered her that those in lower income brackets were penalized for financial hardships that might be beyond their control.
“That cost the county thousands of dollars over time,” Hirst said earlier this year. “It also meant someone not even convicted faced an extreme hardship, rather than allowing them to work while a case was pending.”
Working together, West, Hesse and Hirst determined the best procedure for their respective departments, then lent support to each other in making the new system a reality.
The key, Hirst said, was communication – both on the part of county officials and those charged with paying costs and fees.
“If they have lost their job or are having problems paying a certain amount, we can lower the amount at any time or we can give them an additional time period to get another job without the pressure of this payment hanging over their head,” the court clerk said.
Judge Hesse also left the lines of communication open, West and Hirst said, taking into consideration the actions of the individual, his or her ties to the community and whether they took responsibility for fulfilling any non-financial sentence requirements facing them as the result of a case filing or conviction.
As time went on, the system began to make a significant difference with Canadian County’s jail population numbers, while giving those who may have made a mistake a chance to rectify it without further embarrassment or penalty.
“I was really impressed with the plan and how the three of them got together and worked out a solution that did so much to help so many people,” said District 3 County Commissioner Jack Stewart.
Stewart, of Yukon, studies jail population data each week to see fluctuations in those numbers.
“Our county owes a debt of gratitude to these officers, who went above and beyond and looked beyond a person’s name on a piece of paper,” he said. “And I think the positive impact is probably a lot bigger than even we know because they have helped people keep their jobs and keep their families and homes together.”
For Hirst, it was a simple choice to make.
“We want to help them, not make it harder – they deserve the opportunity to take care of these obligations and pay their court cost and fines but not lose their dignity,” the court clerk said. “Everyone deserves a second chance and we are trying to give them that.”