McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

April 24, 2014

Sheriffs accuse state of ducking out of promises

OKLAHOMA CITY — 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.

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.

“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 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.

The 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 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.”

Janelle Stecklein is CNHI’s

Oklahoma state reporter.

Contact her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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