Alabama sheriffs can still pocket jail food funds, until the legislature acts

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In two memos sent Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Alabama sheriffs may no longer personally profit from a very small portion of jail food funds: those state funds allocated for services in preparing and serving food to people in their jails.

“Public funds should be used for public purposes – it’s that simple,” Ivey said in a statement.

Yet, some advocacy groups is pointing out the fact that contrary to what many believe, the memos do not yet fully fix the problem of sheriffs personally pocketing these public funds.

Alabama Appleseed — a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to work to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians that is currently suing, along with the Southern Center for Human Rights, 49 Alabama sheriff’s who have refused to turn over public records of jail food funds — says Ivey’s directive will have little practical impact on the problem it seeks to address.

According to the group the reason Ivey’s memos won’t work is technical: the Governor’s memos only prohibit sheriffs from personally profiting from what is referred to in § Ala. Code 14-6-43 as “food service allowance funds”. Whereas memos fail to stop sheriffs from pocketing the far larger amounts of state monies that are provided, per §Ala. Code 14-6-42,  for the cost of food itself.

Thus, Ivey can’t unilaterally stop the sheriffs from keeping excess funds, only lawmakers can do that. Which is exactly what she’s calling on them to do in the next legislative session: change the laws.

The devil’s in the details

The food service allowance funds make up a small fraction of the total amount that a sheriff receives. In 2017, across the state, sheriffs received $204,605.10 in food service allowance funds, and the far larger sum of $4,991,500.50 for food costs.

Translation: the food service allowance, which the Governor’s memo addressed, constituted less than 4 percent of the total amount of state jail food money that was given to sheriffs last year.

“Unfortunately, unless this directive is revised, sheriffs will continue to pocket large amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts,” said Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“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,” added 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.”

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