By Mindy Ragan Wood
Canadian County Sheriff Chris West believes the Oklahoma Department of Corrections owes the county about $200,000 to house state inmates in the jail.
West began sending letters to the Department of Corrections last September to resolve two years’ worth of unpaid invoices, but so far, the bills remain unpaid. DOC has paid $27 per day per inmate, but West said the cost is $31.
“They said they were willing to discuss the invoices and why DOC was unable to pay. They said we were calculating our costs incorrectly,” West said.
West plans to take DOC up on the offer to discuss the unpaid expenses. According to state law, DOC can pay up to $27 a day for an inmate housed in county jail from the time they are sentenced to the time they are received into the state prison system. County officials and DOC can negotiate for a higher price if the county can prove the cost to house inmates is higher than the maximum.
DOC determines the actual daily cost, but a letter dated June 13 to West shows DOC will review “all relevant materials regarding the cost to incarcerate inmates” from the time they are sentenced until they are housed in a state prison.
The letter also warned West that DOC has the authority to reduce the daily reimbursement from $27 “if the actual cost is less than $27 which is likely the case,” it states.
“The $31 is based on all of our overhead, payroll and all that,” West said. “Then you divide by the number of beds and calculate our out-of-county prisoner cost for prisoners who are housed in other counties when we don’t have room here. Some counties it’s $45 and $50 depending on their (jail) costs. Ours was around $40. The previous sheriff didn’t calculate the out of county cost, but we did and since that’s $18 a day, that drove down the daily cost heftily.”
If DOC and county officials do not agree on a rate, the state Auditor & Inspector will determine the actual cost per day the county will be reimbursed.
The feud between DOC and county jails is not a new one. Since 2001 when the law on state reimbursement was passed, disputes and lawsuits have continued. Tulsa County Commissioners have filed a lawsuit and other counties are considering litigation.
The cost dilemma reached a tipping point for West after Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter issued an opinion last year stating it was unconstitutional for jails to use ad valorem taxes, which fund county jails, to pay for state inmate housing costs.
West said he is being forced to violate the state’s constitution because DOC isn’t paying enough.
“We just continue to operate under the funding we have. They’re still being housed and taken care of like any other inmate,” he said.
Hope for county jail budgets was dimmed after Gov. Mary Fallin in May vetoed Senate Bill 1442 which would have saved counties money.
State law requires counties to notify DOC within five days that an inmate has received been sentenced. Counties are not paid for the cost to house the inmate until the sentencing paperwork has been turned into DOC, but sheriffs’ offices have no control over when they receive that from the court clerk’s office.
The proposed bill would have eliminated the five-day notification requirement and required court clerks to notify DOC of an inmate’s sentencing instead of sheriff’s offices. The cost during the transition between sentencing and transporting the inmate would have fallen to DOC.
County officials have until September 30 to negotiate the per-day rate and if accepted the new rate will be paid beginning the next fiscal year, which is July 1.