Oklahoma high court weighs in on state’s $27 inmate reimbursement rate

By: - October 10, 2023 4:27 pm

The Oklahoma County Detention Center typically incarcerates over 1,000 inmates. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday on county reimbursement rates for housing state prisoners. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — County jail officials can charge above the state minimum for housing Department of Corrections inmates, but any costs must be directly related to incarcerating the prisoners, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling caps off a yearslong dispute between county leaders, state Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd and the Department of Corrections over what jails can recoup from the state beyond the legislatively set $27 per inmate per day reimbursement rate.

Oklahoma Supreme Court justices ruled that counties can seek additional reimbursement for “consumable costs” like money spent on housing, feeding, clothing and providing medical treatment to state prisoners incarcerated in county facilities. 

But the court ruling limits the amount of “fixed costs” counties can claim. Counties would need to prove new operating expenses resulted from directly housing a state inmate in order to claim those. They could not automatically seek reimbursement for costs that would be incurred regardless of whether the state has any inmates in a county jail.

“Today’s ruling by the state Supreme Court is extremely unfortunate,” Byrd said. “It places a financial hardship on all 77 counties. The state Constitution is clear that no local taxes may be spent on services for which the state is responsible. State inmates are the sole financial responsibility of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), not our counties.”

The disagreement began after Tulsa County leaders hired a private company to calculate its “actual daily cost” to house, feed and care for state prison inmates housed in the county jail. The company determined the county’s costs were about $56 per inmate per day.

Tulsa County leaders sued DOC after the agency rejected the estimate.

State lawmakers in 2017 then tried to clarify the decision by revising the law to add a procedure allowing the state auditor to determine the “actual daily cost” in the event that DOC and a county couldn’t reach an agreement.

Byrd calculated that Tulsa County should actually be reimbursed over $63 per day, according to court records. 

DOC officials disagreed with her calculation and argued they should only have to pay “consumable costs,” not any costs that would be incurred regardless of whether state prisoners were housed in a county jail. 

Supreme Court justices noted in their ruling that lawmakers “failed to define the method or manner in which the state auditor shall” determine the daily costs, which left interpretation up to the court.

The Department of Corrections said in a statement Tuesday that it was “still evaluating the opinion” and looked forward to working with county jails and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association “about the appropriate next steps.”

A spokesperson for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment, saying officials were still reviewing the ruling.


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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.