The state Corrections Department may soon be paying more to house the growing number of inmates languishing in county jails.
A lawsuit filed in June 2012 by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners sought to force the prison system to pay more than the current per diem rate for housing inmates sentenced to terms in state-run prisons.
It also claimed that using county funds to pay for inmates' care — if the cost exceeds the amount allowed under current Oklahoma law — is a violation of the state's constitution.
Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish on Friday ruled in favor of the county commissioners, although prison officials say they will appeal the decision.
Sheriffs, jail administrators and other elected officials across the state have long complained that the $27 per diem rate, set by the Legislature in 2007, is too low. They also say that sentenced inmates remain in their packed jails for too long, sometimes for months after they are judged and sentenced.
According to Oklahoma law, the state Corrections Department assumes financial responsibility of an inmate once a judge hands down a sentence. Last year, the state prison system spent more than $20 million to house these inmates at county jails, a figure that has grown by nearly 300 percent since 2003.
As of last week, there were nearly 1,700 inmates awaiting transfer to prison. Just 15 years ago, there were only 408.
Greg Jenkins, an assistant district attorney for Bryan County, said counties may soon be able to recover more money from the Corrections Department “if they can prove they paid more than the rate set by state law.”
The lawsuit filed by the board came after years of public complaints by former Bryan County Sheriff Bill Sturch, who retired in January.
During a recent interview with The Oklahoman, Sturch called the county jail backlog issue “a common concern” among sheriffs statewide. He also said he understood the issues facing the Corrections Department, whose facilities are just as overcrowded as Oklahoma's county jails.
“We charge $40 per day to house inmates from Durant and surrounding communities,” he said. “We just feel like the state should at least pay the same.”
Bryan County Commissioners Monty Montgomery and Jay Perry did not return calls seeking comment on the judge's ruling.
County jails are cheaper for state
Jerry Massie, Corrections Department spokesman, said it's unclear at this point how the ruling will affect the cash-strapped agency if it survives the appeals process.
According to the agency's most recent annual report, the cost of housing inmates at Oklahoma prisons is significantly higher than the rate paid to county jails across the state.
For instance, records show that it costs $37.39 each day to house an inmate at a minimum-security prison, a figure that doesn't include medical expenses. For inmates doing time at a maximum-security prison, the daily cost is $78.50.
“Housing inmates at county jails is cheaper than having them in our custody or a private prison, so there obviously would be some impact there,” Massie said. “We just don't know what that will be if the appeals fail.”