Sheriffs Pocket Funds Meant for Jail Food. Alabama's Governor Is Trying to End That.

by | July 12, 2018

By Connor Sheets

Gov. Kay Ivey took a small step Tuesday toward stopping Alabama from allowing sheriffs to pocket public money allocated to feeding local inmates that they do not spend. But despite some early news reports, Ivey alone cannot and did not end the longstanding practice.

Ivey's office said Wednesday afternoon that it directed the state comptroller's office in a Tuesday memo to stop depositing some of the jail food money into sheriffs' personal accounts and instead pay it into sheriffs' official county accounts.

Multiple national news outlets reported Wednesday that Ivey's directive would bring an end to the controversial practice of county sheriffs across Alabama personally pocketing "leftover" state funds allocated to feed inmates in the jails they oversee.

But the move will not actually bar sheriffs from ultimately receiving that money, Daniel Sparkman, a spokesman for Ivey, told AL.com.

"This move is not meant to prevent the sheriff's offices from getting the funds," Sparkman said via telephone Wednesday afternoon. "The intention of this is it's the first step in making sure public funds stay public funds. Another step in this would be that the legislature come in in the next session and clarify the law."

Robert Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said that he would like to see oversight of inmate-feeding taken away from sheriffs and handed over to county governments or the state, but that he believes that such a change can only be made via a new law passed by the state legislature.

"I've been trying to get that done for many, many years, but she can't do it," he said. The governor doesn't have that authority. The Supreme Court ruled many years ago that the Constitution gives the authority to write laws only to the legislature or to Congress."

In most cases, the state currently deposits $1.75 per day into sheriffs' official county accounts for each inmate housed in the county jails they oversee. Fewer than 20 counties have passed laws that hand over control of inmate-feeding from sheriffs to the counties themselves. In those counties, the state instead deposits the $1.75 per day into accounts managed by the county government.

The state also pays a lower daily fee -- between 5 cents and $1 per inmate per day depending on how many inmates are incarcerated in a specific jail on a given day -- into sheriffs' personal financial accounts. Ivey's memo instead directs the comptroller's office to instead deposit the latter funds -- known as food service allowances -- into the sheriffs' official county accounts.

"Through this memorandum, I am rescinding the State's current policy of paying prisoner food service allowances directly to sheriffs in their personal capacities," Ivey wrote in her Tuesday memo.

Three legal advocacy groups who spoke with AL.com Wednesday confirmed that the initial reports about Ivey's directive were misleading, and said that it will not stop sheriffs from keeping funds allocated to feed inmates in county jails.

In March, AL.com reported that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin personally kept more than $750,000 in local, state and federal funds allocated to feed inmates in his jail over the past three years and went on to purchase a $740,000 beach house in September.

Inmate-feeding funds quickly became a hot-button issue following that report. In late March, state Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City introduced legislation aimed at changing the state law that has allowed sheriffs to personally keep "leftover" inmate-feeding funds since the Great Depression. At the time that law was passed, Alabama county jails were typically attached to sheriffs' homes and housed few enough inmates that the meals were cooked by sheriffs' wives.

The bill, which was introduced in the final days of this year's legislative session, did not pass, but multiple state lawmakers have expressed interest in introducing similar legislation in the 2019 session.

In a Wednesday statement, Chris Henrichson, research director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, called on the state to find a way to stop sheriffs from pocketing "leftover" inmate-feeding funds.

"I've been studying prison and jail costs for years and was stunned to hear not only that Alabama taxpayer funds appropriated to feed incarcerated people were being used by Sheriffs for personal purposes, but also that the practice was actually permitted by the state," Henrichson said. "I've never heard of anything like this before in another jail or prison system, and ending this practice could not happen soon enough."

(c)2018 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham