AP NEWS

2 sheriffs seek voter OK to use inmate food money elsewhere

March 1, 2020 GMT

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Voters in two northeast Alabama counties will decide Tuesday whether their sheriffs can use jail inmate food money for other purposes.

In Etowah and Marshall counties, local constitutional amendments would let the sheriffs use all leftover money on sheriff’s office business, up from 25% now. Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton is pledging to use any leftover money to fund school resource officers at county schools.

The referendums are part of the fallout from earlier state efforts to keep sheriffs from personally pocketing any money that’s left over after feeding inmates. That practice was long legal in Alabama, but was finally banned after a series of scandals.

A Pickens County sheriff was convicted of tax fraud charges after keeping food money and using his church food pantry to feed inmates instead. A Morgan County sheriff settled a lawsuit after she withdrew food money and loaned it to a used car dealership. A former Etowah County sheriff was accused of using food money to buy a beach house, although auditors and ethics officials have found nothing illegal about what he did.

Horton tells The Gadsden Times statewide legislation passed last year increased the state payment per inmate per day to $2.25 total, including a 5-cent earmark for kitchen maintenance, and makes the account a public one, rather than a personal account for the sheriff.

If there is a surplus, state law permits 25% of it to go toward other law enforcement expenses.

“This amendment will let Etowah County use not just 25%, we could use 100%,” the sheriff said. The amendment says specifically that Horton can use the money on school resource officers. Currently, the sheriff’s office, Etowah County schools and the county commission split the cost of some officers.

“It would help us work toward getting SROs at every school,” Etowah County Superintendent Alan Cosby said.

Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims said the county has extra money in its jail food fund that can’t be spent under the current state law. He told WHNT-TV that he’s hired a dietitian to make sure inmates get nutritious food and wouldn’t pinch food costs to raise money for other purposes.

“They’re inmates, I understand, but you still have to take care of them,” Sims said. “They are still humans. You still have to feed people, take care of them, and treat them respectfully, treat them humanly.”