Officials disagree on statewide jail food solution | Local News
Morgan County voters will consider a constitutional amendment in November that lawmakers hope will put an end to long-running turmoil over the sheriff’s ability to pocket money received for the feeding of inmates, and some see it as a model for statewide legislation.
Others, however, say any statewide change to the 1939 law that allows most Alabama sheriffs to personally keep unspent food money must include an increase in the $1.75 per day the state gives sheriffs to feed jail inmates.
“I think it could work for the state,” said Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who carried the local bill in the House. “The entire way the law is set up currently is not a good practice. The optics of it look really bad. The sheriffs are incentivized to cut expenditures on inmate food because they can make a higher salary that way.”
The state House on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 216, which on Feb. 1 had passed the Senate. No governor’s signature is necessary on local laws, so the issue will be on Morgan County ballots in November.
If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment would end the practice of allowing the sheriff to pocket leftover jail food money and simultaneously raise the sheriff’s salary.
The sheriff’s pay would increase to an amount $5,000 below the commission chairman’s annual salary. The chairman’s salary currently is $101,276, so the sheriff’s salary under the amendment would be $96,276. That’s up $25,096 from the sheriff’s current base salary of $71,180. The increase would be effective in January, after a sheriff is elected in November. Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin is not seeking re-election.
Frank Knaack, of advocacy group Alabama Appleseed, has been spearheading efforts to change the system statewide.
“We should not have laws in place that incentivize law enforcement to do things that are counter to the interests of the public,” Knaack said. “If sheriffs want to make more personally, they think they can spend less money on their inmates and take that money home. That’s a problem.”
The local bill was sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and he sees it as a possible model for the state.
“It would take away the public’s skepticism about the conflict of interest, where you have the potential that a sheriff could personally benefit from inadequate feeding of prisoners,” Orr said. He said the local amendment strikes a balance between fair treatment of inmates and adequate compensation for the sheriff, while leaving the County Commission free from responsibility for the feeding program.
If approved by voters, the Morgan County amendment would leave the Sheriff’s Office responsible for feeding the inmates. State money designated for that purpose would go to a separate account. Any shortfalls would have to be covered by the Sheriff’s Office’s allocated or discretionary funds, but not by the sheriff personally. Food purchases would remain exempt from the competitive bidding laws, which sheriffs say is necessary to make the quick, low-cost bulk purchases that help them stay within the state’s $1.75 per prisoner, per day allotment.
While County Commission Chairman Ray Long supported Orr’s local bill, other counties see problems. Among those problems is their expectation that any shortfalls would have to be covered from the county’s general fund.
Sonny Brasfield, director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the solution crafted for Morgan County would not work for the state. He said he has talked with several lawmakers and stakeholders in recent days about the possibility of a statewide legislative change. His concerns focus on what he sees as a likelihood that county commissions will end up paying for any shortfalls.
“It’s a significant issue in the 30 smallest counties, where law enforcement — the sheriff’s department and the jail — make up 50 percent or more of the county’s general fund budget expenditures,” Brasfield said.
Orr said it’s not a given that county commissions would get stuck with any shortfalls.
“Should the sheriff go over (on food costs), they need to look at other revenue sources, such as their pistol permit funds and discretionary funds,” Orr said. “They shouldn’t just be able to turn around and send the county commission a bill.”
Even under the current system, in which sheriffs have a personal incentive to minimize food costs, shortfalls are not unusual, said Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell. He points out that the Morgan County Jail, unlike most jails in the state, has federal prisoners who bring with them a higher food allowance.
“We get $1.75 per prisoner per day,” Mitchell said. “We provide three meals a day for that. It’s tough. You’ve got to be very aggressive in how you buy and where you buy. … In this part of the country, you get a lot of chicken you can buy at a reduced price.”
Aggressive purchasing of low-cost food was what started legal problems over the inmate feeding program in Morgan County. In 2009, former Sheriff Greg Bartlett testified he legally pocketed $212,000 from the inmate food account over a three-year period through cost-saving moves. In one incident, he testified he split a $1,000 truck load of corndogs with Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
Inmates at the Morgan County Jail testified they were underfed and that Bartlett had fed them corndogs twice a day for weeks, earning him the moniker “Sheriff Corndog.”
Mitchell said he’s not operating at a deficit on food money now, but he often has. He said he recently talked to a sheriff who had to take out a bank note to cover a $100,000 shortfall.
Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin, who like Bartlett was held in contempt of court after judicial scrutiny of the food program, said the account has operated at a deficit since 2015 and she personally lost $40,000 feeding inmates last year.
Brasfield said an obvious way to reduce the likelihood of shortfalls is for the Legislature to increase the amount the state pays for inmate food. The law setting that amount, as amended in 1980, provides for payment of $1.75 per inmate per day. “In addition to that amount,” the law reads, “there is hereby conditionally appropriated from the General Fund an amount of $1.25 per capita.”
“That’s never been funded, and we’ve really never asked for it,” Brasfield said. “If you’re going to talk about some sort of solution that changes the process, then I think there will have to be some discussion about what is the appropriate amount. Is $1.75 appropriate?”
The state budgeted about $9 million for the feeding of county prisoners in fiscal 2018, an amount that has increased little for a decade, and Orr said he could imagine the Legislature increasing the line item as part of an overhaul of the inmate feeding system. But he pointed out that many sheriffs have profited from the system at the $1.75 amount and few have complained.
“In my five years as General Fund chairman, no one ever asked to have that amount increased,” Orr said.