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.