The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

April 22, 2014

Sheriffs say state ducked out on prisoner promises

ENID, Okla. — State efforts to save time and money by shuffling prisoners more swiftly through the system are riling local sheriffs who are losing money because of the efficiency program.

A change in Department of Corrections practice is landing a “significant hit” on two-thirds of Oklahoma counties, which depend on reimbursements to house state inmates locally, said Ken McNair, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association.

“The sheriffs are now in a position where they have to make adjustments to their budgets,” he said.

Sheriffs converged on the Capitol on Tuesday, filling the Senate gallery, in part to protest efforts to remove inmates from their custody. The change will cost the sheriffs — but save the state — millions each year.

In a years-old practice, the Department of Corrections has used county jails as holding facilities for inmates awaiting prison assignments. Some prisoners remain in local lock-up limbo for months.

The state pays the sheriffs $27 per day to keep each inmate.

Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Niles said sheriffs also requested support from legislators for House Bill 2804 on Tuesday.

Niles said the bill modifies jail reimbursement procedures and rates between counties and the Department of Corrections, and would change the daily reimbursement to sheriffs from $27 per day up to $35 per day for inmates the counties are housing.

About a month ago, the corrections department started expediting its assignments, reducing the average wait time for intake from nine days to four, in a bid to save as much as $13 million per year. Rather than accept 35 inmates per day into state prisons, the department now takes 100.

The increase in accepted inmates was made possible after the Department of Corrections started an early release program to deal with the overcrowding situation, therefore creating bed space to pull inmates from county jails, Niles said.

“Our goal is to not have any sort of jail backup,” said department spokesman Jerry Massie.

The prison system gets 7,000 new inmates a year.

The state has reduced the number of its inmates housed in local jails from 1,900 to 1,048 in a little less than a month, said Massie. The department has built capacity at various prisons across the state and is trying to make sure all of its lower-security beds are full.

“Obviously, we need to manage our budget, and $13 million is a fairly sizable amount,” he said.

But the sudden course reversal inflicts pain on counties that rely on that $13 million.

“DOC did not talk with any of the sheriffs about this. DOC’s been in an overcrowding situation for over a decade. It’s always been a gentlemen’s agreement that we would help DOC out and house inmates for a while,” Niles said.

Over the years, county officials have come to expect how many Department of Corrections inmates would be housed in the jail on a monthly basis, he said.

“That’s become a budget item, and by them pulling out all these inmates without notice, for me, it’s impacting my budget to the tune of about $240,000 through the end of June 30,” Niles said, adding that the change will probably amount to a financial impact on the county of about $740,000 next fiscal year.

In the past four weeks, there have been 97 inmates transported from Garfield County to Lexington Assessment & Reception Center. Prior to the change, Niles said, it took 180 days, on average, for an inmate housed in Garfield County to be transported to a prison facility.

Another problem, said Pontotoc County Sheriff John Christian, is that a number of counties, including his, built jails that exceed local needs at the request of former corrections officials. The state, he said, pledged to counties: Build it and we’ll fill it.

Pontotoc County did just that in 2010 and has housed as many as 100 state inmates at a time in its new jail. Some prisoners remain there for months, Christian said.

In return, the county gets $650,000 a year in reimbursements, which covers about half of the $1.3 million per year price of its new jail.

Christian said Pontotoc County doesn’t have extra money to fill the void that’s expected now that the corrections department is changing its approach.

Short of laying off 18 of 25 jail employees, he doesn’t know how he’ll make ends meet. In a Catch-22, state inspectors require 25 employees to work the Pontotoc County jail because of the size of the new facility, he said. Laying off employees would throw the county out of compliance.

McNair said many counties built larger jails to accommodate verbal requests from previous corrections officials.

In addition, said McNair, many counties depend on state inmates for other reasons — such as mustering crews for beautification work.

“We never really expected the ideal solution would be to move all the inmates from the county jail,” said McNair. “It’s more than just $27 a day. You have to add up all the physical costs.”  

Niles said Department of Corrections officials are trying to use private prisons for housing some inmates. Meanwhile, new Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton is supportive of using private prisons, according to an Associated Press report.

It is “more cost effective using county jails, rather than private prisons,” Niles said.

Enid News & Eagle Staff Writer Jessica Miller contributed to this report.

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