Commissioners mull future of juvenile detention center

MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Muskogee County commissioners began mulling the possibility of closing a regional juvenile detention facility due to the anticipated loss of state funding.

District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke said the Office of Juvenile Affairs appears ready to approve the licensing required for the county to continue operating the 10-bed facility after June 30.  He and other commissioners said operating the facility without state funding would be unsustainable at a time of economic instability due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Make no bones about it, this is finances and they are just looking for ways to save money at the state of Oklahoma,” Doke said, acknowledging reduced demand for beds at juvenile lockups since the first of the year. “We’re not the only facility — there’s been two to three other facilities across the state.”

Interim Executive Director Rachel Holt said OJA’s decision to cut funding for Muskogee County Regional Juvenile Detention Center was made long before the pandemic and the state’s resulting revenue failure. The decision, she said, was made when board members revised the state’s Plan for the Establishment of Detention Services.

“That decision was not based on the recent actions by the Legislature or budget cuts,” Holt said in her response to inquiries sent by email. “But the anticipated budget cuts and the data for detention use in that region were topics I discussed with Commissioner Doke and Rep. (Avery) Frix when I spoke to them in April and informed them that I did not anticipate the OJA board changing the decision it made in December 2019.”

The decision by OJA’s governing board was made at about the time Doke expressed concerns about the liability of counties that operate regional juvenile detention centers. He had discussed the need for statutory changes that provided more protection to counties he described as entities through which the state passes funds to third-party operators.    

State law defines a county’s operation of a regional facility as a “quasi-judicial function ... of the state” for purposes of immunity from lawsuits filed by other states, a right guaranteed by the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It also requires a county to ensure third-party contractors are insured in accordance with the Governmental Tort Claims Act to protect against “lawsuits arising from the transportation of juveniles” or “operation of the juvenile detention facility by the contractor.”

Commissioners will decide how to address the loss of funding as a civil rights lawsuit filed by the estate of a 15-year-old inmate found dead in his cell proceeds toward trial in federal court. The Muskogee County Board of Commissioners is the sole defendant remaining in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Billy Woods’ estate.

Muskogee County Council of Youth Services, which operated the facility for the county at the time of Woods’ death, settled claims it faced in 2019 for an undisclosed amount. Claims against MCCOYS employees on duty at the time were settled and dismissed simultaneously.

Commissioners appeared prepared this week to send a letter to OJA, providing notice of their intent to “cease operations” of the facility after June 30. An unsigned draft of the letter states the “contracted operator ... had been notified” of the decision and the transition toward closure would begin, but they left open the option “to discuss any and all possible solutions” that might keep the facility open now or at some future date.

District Judge Bret Smith objected to the proposed move, asking for a delay in the decision to close the facility. He said doing so could have a significant impact on public safety, law enforcement and the local judiciary. 

“We had a major problem on our hands when they shuttered that facility the last go-around,” Smith said, wondering how a shortage of beds in the state could become a surplus so quickly. “Crime has not stopped and these offenders — I mean we’re talking about the most violent of juvenile offenders that are not eligible to go into our county jails.”

Smith said local judges should be included in further discussions about the facility’s future.  

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