Alabama Governor Bans Sheriffs From Taking Funds Meant for Prisoners' Meals
MONTGOMERY, AL – July 12, 2018
Alabama’s Gov. Kay Ivey took a small step Tuesday toward cutting off a gravy train for the state’s sheriffs, ending a state policy that gave funding to feed prison inmates directly to sheriffs, allowing them to pocket unspent money for their own personal use.
To curtail the longstanding controversial practice, that has let sheriffs pocket tax dollars that over the decades almost certainly ran into the millions, Gov. Kay Ivey directed the state comptroller's office in a Tuesday memo to stop depositing some of the jail food money into sheriffs' personal accounts. Instead, the funds will now be sent to a county general fund or an account created for the sheriff to use.
“Public funds should be used for public purposes,” Ms. Ivey, a Republican, said in a statement on Wednesday. “It’s that simple.”
But the move will not actually bar sheriffs from ultimately receiving that money. 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," Robert Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association 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.
Critics of the practice welcomed the governor’s action on Wednesday but said it resolved only part of the problem because it did not apply to every type of payment related to jail food.
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.
Gov. Kay’s move is sure to infuriate sheriffs in at least some of Alabama’s 67 counties, and the governor’s order may be tested in the courts. One black sheep can ruin the whole herd, but it’s unwise to collapse the system which worked for decades. Economic disclosure forms filed by sheriffs suggest that many do not take the leftover money, sometimes because of local laws. The system works. There were some high-profile incidents involving sheriffs keeping the funds for themselves. Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett, for example, was found to be in contempt of court in 2009 for failing to properly feed inmates in his jail. He had kept $212,000 of the excess funds.
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. He lost his GOP primary bid for reelection last month due to the scandal. The bill, aimed at changing the state law that has allowed sheriffs to personally keep "leftover" inmate-feeding funds, was introduced in the final days of this year's legislative session, but did not pass. This money has been widely discussed behind closed doors. The good ole boy system decided to keep this money in the Sheriffs pocket, but multiple state lawmakers have expressed interest in introducing similar legislation in the 2019 session.
Meanwhile, the governor’s lawyers acknowledged in an internal review that state attorneys general in Alabama had reached conflicting conclusions about the leftover funds.
One, Troy King, ruled in a 2008 opinion that a “sheriff may retain any surplus from the food service allowance as personal income” and noted that “most of the sheriffs in the state have retained the food and service allowances for personal income for years.” Mr. King, who left office in 2011, is running for attorney general again this year; he is competing in the Republican primary runoff on July 17.
In the last two decades, though, two other attorneys general have reached the opposite view, that sheriffs were not entitled to excess food money.
Advocates for ending the practice called for action by state lawmakers to abolish it completely.
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."