By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
Current health and safety restrictions are contributing to a further drop in Canadian County’s inmate population.
The count over the past two months has ranged between 139-165 prisoners in a jail with space for 194, according to weekly jail reports presented to Canadian County Commissioners.
“It’s as low as it’s been,” Canadian County Sheriff Chris West. “It was about 200 more than that – about 325-330 – at one point.”
West described an “organized effort around the country not to be moving inmates” if possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wanted to shut it all down – not only county to county and in-state/out-of-state, but cross country,” he said.
Because of virus concerns, this effort to restrict inmate movement started several weeks ago after discussions among county sheriffs, judges, the Department of Corrections, the Attorney General’s Office and Office of the Administrative Courts.
“We just don’t want to introduce something into our facilities,” West said.
When being booked into the county jail, all prisoners are screened according to state health department regulations.
While jail bookings are down over the past three weeks, Canadian County sheriff’s deputies are making arrests when needed.
“If they need to be arrested, we’re going to arrest them,” West said.
Law enforcement officers have much discretion, but if it’s a felony or a violent misdemeanor, in most cases the person will be arrested.
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies sometimes decide to release the individual at the scene. But they can still file an out-of-custody affidavit.
Canadian County’s jail numbers had been declining steadily even before the coronavirus outbreak.
About seven years ago, Canadian County completed an expansion of the 72-bed county jail in El Reno due to overcrowding issues.
This increased capacity to nearly 200 inmates. But it didn’t take long for the inmate count to start exceeding that number so Canadian County utilized contracts with other counties to house the excess.
At its peak, Canadian County’s jail population exceeded 300 – both in-house and out-of-county.
“It’s finally started to level off over the last 18 months to two years,” Sheriff West said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see it drop a little bit more, but I don’t foresee it going back near the numbers it was at.”
At the time, Canadian County was spending around $700,000 annually to house its inmates in other counties. And that didn’t include transportation-related costs – fuel, vehicles and deputy salaries.
“We had contracts with five other counties because, at one point, we had 325 (inmates) and we have 194 beds,” West said. “We’re now at like 155, so we haven’t had to send anyone to another county in a while.
“We put about $500,000 in our out-of-county housing budget this year, but we’re not going to spend anywhere near it.”
In recent months, the prisoner count has trended downward steadily since the Dec. 9, 2019 report to Canadian County Commissioners – when there were 200 inmates at the county jail and 22 inmates being housed in other counties. The total dropped to 211 in the Dec. 16 report, and has been below 200 since.
This week’s total of 139 inmates is the low mark.
Since mid-February, only one Canadian County prisoner has been locked up in another county – and that county (Dewey) is paying the housing cost.
IMPACT OF S.Q. 780
The large decrease in jail population is due largely to passage of State Question 780, a criminal justice reform bill.
“It basically took 60 felonies and turned them into misdemeanors,” Sheriff West said.
SQ 780, approved by voters in November 2016 and effective in July 2017, reclassified some low-level offenses like drug possession and simple property crimes to misdemeanors punishable by treatment in the community.
Some people who previously may have ended up in jail are no longer even being charged for certain crimes.
“It has increased some victimization out there because there’s some people that are still committing crimes that were felonies – that are now misdemeanors,” Sheriff West said.
“I think there’s some unintended consequences that have come as a result of 780 that the (state) Legislature is looking at to see if they can get it corrected. They probably won’t do a wholesale overturn of everything, but they’ll try to address some of it. And that could impact the jail population.”
When Canadian County’s prisoner count was so high several years ago, there was talk that county commissioners would have to consider yet another jail expansion.
That chatter has certainly quieted down.
“I don’t foresee it,” West said. “If our numbers stay where they’re at, we’re 40 (plus) under. But I can’t say never.”