MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

March 2, 2014

Sheriff: County pays price for state backlog

State prisoners cost Muskogee County through overcrowding problems at jail

Muskogee County taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize the state’s prison system, but Sheriff Charles Pearson said that is exactly what’s been happening for years.

The backlog of state prisoners being kept in Muskogee County/City Detention Facility and other county jails has been a problem for years. Pearson said it isn’t getting any better and could get worse if lawmakers approve tax cuts being pushed by Gov. Mary Fallin.

“She could solve a lot of our problems by putting that money into schools, or why don’t we build a prison or two,” Pearson said about the revenue that would be lost by cutting tax rates for the state’s highest income earners. “Taxpayers in Muskogee County did not pass that (sales) tax for us to pay the state for keeping their prisoners, but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Administrator Joe Hughart said the Muskogee County jail has a 282-bed capacity, but Friday’s head count showed the facility was housing 314 inmates. Seventy-four of those prisoners have been sentenced and now await transfer to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, but its facilities have remained for years at or near capacity.

Hughart said many of the state prisoners being housed in Muskogee County have been waiting eight months or longer to be transferred to a state facility. Because the state has no room for them, Hughart regularly has to send county inmates facing charges here to other counties to control the jail’s inmate populations.

“Overcrowding causes fights,” Hughart said, noting every prisoner for whom there is no bed has to sleep on a mat on the floor. “It causes more stress on us, and it causes more stress on the inmates.”

But there are costs associated with transferring local prisoners to other county jails. The most obvious cost is the $32 a day Muskogee County taxpayers spend for each local inmate transferred to another county. Other costs attributed to jail overcrowding as a result of the backlog of state prisoners include the price of additional meals, jump suits, mats and bedding, towels and hygiene.

Pearson said the reimbursement rate for each state inmate housed at a county jail is capped by state lawmakers at $27 a day, resulting with an immediate loss of $5 a day. Further depleting the county jail’s budget, Pearson said, is the fact his office will not be reimbursed for keeping state inmates until they are transferred to a DOC facility.

“It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul: I have to send inmates to other county jails, pay them more than what I am getting from the state,” Pearson said. “If I don’t, the state health inspector will write me up for being overcrowded — maybe if that happens they will come and pick up their prisoners.”

Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the state correctional system, said that could be hard to do considering Oklahoma’s prison system ranges from 97 percent to 99 percent capacity at all times. Additionally, there are about 1,700 state prisoners being housed in county jails across the state.

According to the agency’s 2013 annual report, state correctional facilities and private contract prisons housed 26,539 prisoners. About 5,800 state prisoners were being held at private facilities. Massie said while there may be some private beds available, the agency lacks the funding needed to place more prisoners.

The state agency, Massie said, requested supplemental appropriations totaling $13 million to carry it through until June 30. Agency heads also requested $30 million to $40 million in addition to the $463.73 million it received this year to fund fiscal year 2015 operations.

Fallin, who proposed funding cuts next year of about 5 percent for most state agencies, recommended a 0.5 percent increase for DOC’s budget. That would amount to a $2.4 million bump for a total proposed appropriation of about $466.13 million.

Alex Weintz, the governor’s communications director, said Fallin has asked DOC Director Robert Patton, who took the helm at the agency in February, “to pursue systemwide improvements.” Weintz said the governor “believes the agency can be run more efficiently and effectively, waste can be reduced, and problems like overcrowding can be successfully addressed.”

“The first priority given to Director Patton ... is looking into staffing and overcrowding concerns,” Weintz said. “We expect him to have a proposed plan of action within the first month of his being on the job. Gov. Fallin has confidence that Director Patton can put together a plan to successfully address overcrowding and other issues at our state prisons.”

Pearson said whatever steps are taken, it shouldn’t be done at the county’s expense. An Oklahoma County judge ruled in September the use of property taxes to subsidize a state function violates the Oklahoma Constitution. The judge, ruling in a 2012 lawsuit filed by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners, noted in her ruling that housing state prisoners is a state function.

Online court records show state corrections officials are appealing the judge’s ruling. Notice that compilation of the district court record has been completed was filed this past week with the clerk of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Lawyers should begin briefing their cases during the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Pearson said he will consider letting the inmate population here swell until the state is forced to take them. Massie responded to the sheriff’s idea with a degree of empathy and understanding.

“We understand the burden it puts on the sheriffs and would like to have the capacity to move them, but you have to have the money,” Massie said about the backlog of DOC prisoners held in county jails. “We are always looking at what we can do to move people through our system faster, but unless we get increased capacity or reduce the number of people coming through the system, this will continue to be an issue.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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