By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama House passed a bill ending the practice of sheriffs being able to pocket leftover jail food funds and setting new parameters for how county jail meal money is handled.
Senate Bill 228 was passed out of the House unanimously, but with an amendment that takes out the two percent increase to the food state allowance every two years. Under the amendment, the Legislature would have to approve another increase in the state allowance.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and was handled in the House by Rep. Rex Reynolds, R- Huntsville. During the floor debate, Reynolds said the bill shifts liability for dealing with the food funds from sheriffs to the county commissions.
The bill also increases the daily allowance for inmates’ food from $1.75 to $2.25. The money would be placed into a newly-created Prisoner Feeding Fund.
Reynolds explained during floor discussion that with the ongoing changes being made to the state’s jails and prison system, the Legislature should wait to see the full effect of those changes before making a commitment.
“With all of the recent and coming sentencing reforms and prison reforms that are expected to come to this body in the next few years, the county commissioners and sheriffs associations agreed that they need to wait a few years to see all of those go into effect to see how it affects the prison population,” Reynolds said. “It may go up, it may stay the same, but we don’t know that right now.”
The bill is also meant to stop the decades-old ability of sheriffs to keep leftover food funds, which has lead to some sheriffs pocketing the money for their own personal use.
Orr told Alabama Daily News that this was a personal issue for him. He’s from Morgan County where a previous sheriff was nicknamed “Sheriff Corndog” after keeping $200,000 over three years while inmates ate corndogs twice a day.
Orr said that after other recent revelations about jail food money abuse there was an urgency in the Legislature to change the law.
“We’ve gotten support from the sheriffs and the counties and just appreciate everyone working together to abolish this practice that probably worked well in the 1920s and 30s when it was first adopted, but not today,” Orr said.
Rep. Mary Moore, D- Birmingham, voiced concern about having the county commissioners become responsible for the Prisoner Feeding Fund, saying that she has problems with how the Jefferson County commissioners handle their county’s funds.
“We have just as many issues with our county commissions and we don’t have as many with the sheriffs,” Moore said. “But that concerns me because they have too many pots of money that they are responsible for.”
“Our county commissions are not good stewards of money at all.”
Rep. John Rogers, D- Birmingham, said that his “favorite part” of the bill was the two percent raise every two years, but that he still supports the bill.
The drop in the two percent increase obviously didn’t seem to throw any other supporters off because the amendment passed without any opposition.
Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R- Muscle Shoals, said that this was an issue that he campaigned on and was proud to vote in favor of the bill.
“It’s high time we update this antiquated law dealing with how jail food is paid for and administered,” Sorrell said. “A few bad apples among the Sheriffs will no longer be able to abuse the system and liability will be transferred to the county commission. This is a good bill all the way around.”
Rep. Mike Ball, R- Madison, said that it was about time the state updated the state’s system in feeding inmates.
“This reform was long overdue,” Ball said. “It should ensure that prisoners will be properly fed and eliminate the questionable practice of public officials pocketing the food money.”
Rep. Jamie Kiel, R- Russellville, said he was happy to support the bill because it means taxpayer money is being spent the way it was meant to be.
“I believe that any time taxpayer money is used, it should be used for the intended purpose, it should be open to public scrutiny, and those handling the money should be held accountable,” Kiel said. “Our sheriffs work hard and we should pay them a fair wage, but like any other public employee, we should know how much they make and where the funds come from.”
The bill now goes back to the Senate where the chamber can agree with the House and send it on to the Governor, or ask to go to a conference committee to work out the differences.