September 15, 2013

DOC money pit

State agency's actions have imprisoned Grady County revenue stream

James Bright, Managing Editor,
The Express-Star


A cadre of Grady County politicians have set out to stop the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) from abusing county jails. 

State Representative Scott Biggs (R-Alex) is in the process of drafting legislation that would combat over crowding and financial hardships brought on by the DOC leaving their inmates in facilities, like Grady's, for an extended period of time. 

"These jails are absolutely being taken advantage of by the DOC," Biggs said. 

Laws that require the DOC to move their prisoners to a state facility 45 days after their paperwork is processed are being ignored, said Biggs.

Legally the DOC only has to pay county jails $27 a day, per inmate, but Grady County Commissioner Jack Porter said the DOC allocates  $40  a day, per inmate in its budget. This creates a $13 shortfall per inmate, per day for Grady County.  

At the moment, the state house's legal staff is reviewing Bigg's legislation. Biggs said the final draft could address reimbursement amounts, the length of time DOC prisoners stay in county jails, or both. 

"This is an issue that affects Grady County and every county around us," Biggs said. 

The legislation is guaranteed a hearing, since State Representative Leslie Osborn (R-Tuttle) is the chairperson of the House's Judiciary Committee and has assisted Biggs in planning the bill. 

"Obviously there are some problems in the state we need to address," she said. "Scott (Biggs) and I have had really good conversations about these problems, and we are looking to file this bill in December, so we can discuss it during the 2014 session."

State Senator Ron Justice (R-Chickasha) said he and Osborn met with Porter and other Grady County representatives to address the effects of the DOC's actions on the Grady County Jail. 

"I've sat down with the DOC and tried to get them to understand how critical this is to the smaller counties," Justice said. "Now this is a 2-step process. We have to work on fighting and improving this for the next few months, while also planning a longterm fix with legislation."

Justice said Grady's jail is in a unique situation. 

The jail was built without tax money, and is mostly maintained by funds received from the federal government when they have their witnesses or prisoners stay in the facility during transport. 

"That's the purpose our jail serves," Justice said" In addition to housing our inmates, it serves as a transfer stop."

The jail is frequently at max capacity, said Porter, which means when the federal government looks to sleep a bus of 70 prisoners in Grady, the jail has to turn them away. 

"If we are loaded up with DOC prisoners we can't take them," said Porter. "We have some prisoners the DOC has left in our jail for more than a year."

There are currently close to 70 DOC inmates in Grady County. The federal government pays the jail $57 a night, per inmate compared to DOC's $27 a night rate. The majority of the jail's monetary security comes from the Federal payout, which has lessened due to overcrowding brought on by the influx of DOC inmates. 

Porter said the problem will lead to the jail running a deficit, which translates to severe budget cuts at the county level or possible tax increases to offset the revenue loss. 

"If the jail can't pay for itself like it is supposed to, then the county will have to find another way to makeup the money," said Porter. "That's why this needs to change." 

Porter said this issue came to a head for Grady County recently. He said problems became evident about six months ago and he projects the influx of inmates, combined with turning away Federal money, would cost several hundred thousand dollars a year. 

Justice said scrutiny is key in the legislative process. 

"We have to work together to make sure there are no unintended consequences with passing this bill," he said. "We need to protect our tax payers here, while moving these people through the system."

Should the legislation pass, it would effectively work to stop the Grady County Jail from running a deficit. 

For the moment, Justice said he and his colleagues need to continue working on keeping the public safe while pushing the DOC to lessen their reliance on the jail, so it can continue doing what has kept it alive thus far.