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Lawsuit seeks higher rates to house Oklahoma prisoners

by Andrew Knittle Modified: January 1, 2013 at 9:07 pm •  Published: January 2, 2013

After years of public complaints, the Bryan County Board of Commissioners has filed a lawsuit against the state Corrections Department over per diem rates paid by the state agency to house prison-bound inmates in county jails.

The lawsuit filed by the county doesn't seek money — necessarily.

Instead, the county's attorney has asked an Oklahoma County district judge to determine what should happen if the per diem rate isn't enough to cover the cost of an inmate's incarceration in county jail.

The state Corrections Department currently has roughly 1,700 inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons, a number that has grown nearly 300 percent over the last decade as state prisons struggle with overcrowding.

Rate complaints

Each year, the state agency pays counties about $20 million to house these inmates, who can stay for months before moving to a state prison.

They are being housed at county jails across the state at a cost of $27 per day, plus qualifying medical and mental health expenses.

The rate, which was set by state law in 2007, is too low, some county officials and sheriffs say.

In Bryan County, officials have been complaining for years about the issue. Sheriffs and elected officials from other parts of the state also have made public comments about the county jail backlog.

Former Bryan County Sheriff Bill Sturch, who retired Jan. 1, said the $27-per-day rate simply isn't enough.

Sturch, who says judges are handing out lengthy prison sentences these days, called the per diem rate “a common concern” among sheriffs in Oklahoma.

“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.”

Lawsuit is filed

The county's lawsuit against the state Corrections Department alleges that ad valorem tax revenue is being used to cover the costs of housing inmates bound for state prisons, Greg Jenkins, assistant district attorney for Bryan, Atoka and Coal counties, wrote in the petition.

The suit, which was quietly filed in late June, claims using ad valorem tax revenue in such a way isn't legal.

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court has held … (that) the Oklahoma Constitution is violated when the Legislature, either directly or indirectly, requires or permits county ad valorem revenue to be used to support a state institution,” Jenkins wrote in the suit.

Jenkins also contends in the lawsuit that an opinion written by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in 2011 addresses the issue.

“The Attorney General has rendered an opinion … that the housing of state inmates in county jails … serves a clear state purpose,” Jenkins wrote. “If the actual cost to a particular county from housing state inmates is not fully defrayed by the statutory payment … the result is that counties are forced to use county resources to make up the difference.”

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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