Alabama governor: Sheriffs shouldn't pocket jail food money

FILE - In this June 5, 2018, file photo, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey speaks to supporters at her watch party after winning the Republican nomination for governor, at a hotel in Montgomery, Ala. After some Alabama sheriffs profited large sums of money by skimping on jailhouse meals, Ivey said Tuesday, July 10, that the state will no longer give jail food funds to “sheriffs personally.” (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has moved to end a practice that allowed some county sheriffs to pocket leftover from money jail food programs, but advocacy groups said the controversial practice won't stop unless lawmakers change state law.

Ivey directed the state comptroller on Tuesday to stop paying a food service allowance — worth about $4,000 annually per sheriff — to sheriffs' personal bank accounts. Ivey is also asking lawmakers to clarify state law so that a larger pot of money for purchasing food, which totals almost $8 million annually, cannot be kept for sheriffs' personal use, spokesman Daniel Sparkman said.

"Public funds should be used for public purposes — it's that simple," Ivey said in a statement.

Ivey's directive does not stop sheriffs from keeping excess funds, since only lawmakers can change ambiguities in state law that allowed sheriffs to pocket the extra dollars, but she urged lawmakers to address the issue.

Advocacy groups applauded Ivey for taking a "first step" but said some sheriffs will continue to pocket large sums unless lawmakers act.

"For decades some Alabama sheriffs have abused the public trust by placing personal profit over meeting the basic human needs of people in their care," said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. "We thank Governor Ivey for taking the first step to rein in this abuse and urge Alabama legislators to heed her call to end this for good."

For years, some sheriffs have made extra money — sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars — under a Depression-era funding system that critics have argued gives a profit incentive to feed inmates poorly.

A law passed in the days when chain gangs were common sends sheriffs $1.75 a day to feed each prisoner. The state also gives a food service allowance, and another state statute says sheriffs can "retain" leftover money from feeding programs.

Last fiscal year, 55 sheriffs received a combined total of $205,205.10 for the food service allowance that was paid directly to their personal accounts, Ivey's office said.

Ivey's office said they discovered that the state was paying the food service amount to sheriffs' personal accounts under a 2008 attorney general opinion. Ivey said the state should be following a 2011 attorney general's opinion that funds can only be used for "feeding prisoners."

"The law is clear, the attorney general's opinion is clear, and now I have been clear. I urge the Legislature to follow my lead and codify this policy into law during the next regular session."

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights and the nonprofit Alabama Appleseed in January sued dozens of sheriffs, seeking public records about how much they had made off feeding programs.

Some sheriffs have made notable sums.

A federal judge in 2009 held Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett in contempt of court for failing to feed inmates properly. He had made $212,000 over three years off excess food funds. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who lost re-election, released tax forms showing he made a profit of $672,392 from the jail kitchen in 2015 and 2016.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the issue has not been controversial "in the majority of the jails." In some counties, sheriffs have other revenue streams, such as money sent to feed federal prisoners, which can help create a surplus at the end of the year.

Brasfield said clarity would be welcome on what is supposed to happen to leftover money.

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