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Sheriffs Jail Food Controversy Moves a Step Closer To Resolution

House Bill 246 (HB246) (HB461) passed the Alabama House this afternoon.

This local Cullman County bill is written to become an Amendment to the Alabama Code of 1901.

The goal of the legislation is to resolve the ongoing controversy about state statutory requirements placed on Sheriffs across the state of Alabama in regards to the handling and management of inmate food inside of jails and detention centers .. solely specific to Cullman County.

This issue made headlines in early January when 49 Alabama Sheriffs were sued for refusal to produce public record documents showing how Sheriffs personally profit from funds allocated for the feeding of people in jail.

At the time, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce those public records. In their complaint, those records would allegedly show whether, and if so by how much, the Sheriffs have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.

Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry made the roster of the 49 Sheriffs sued.

For background go here.

Gentry declined to reveal his records after the lawsuit appeared. He did, however, offer a public statement about the matter disseminated on Cullman Today.

Since that time, HB246 has been introduced by Alabama House of Representatives co-sponsors Corey Harbison, Randall Shedd, and Ed Henry.

With Harbison leading the legislative initiative. HB246 passed through the Alabama House today; it will make its way next to the Alabama Senate chambers.

The bill itself – if ultimately voted into law by the registered voters of Cullman County – would do several things:

1. HB246 would eliminate the ‘side business’ aspect of the Sheriff’s role in providing food for Detention Center inmates. Currently, Gentry and all Alabama Sheriff’s are allowed by statute to place profits from their handling of jail food programs directly into their own personal checkbooks. They are also responsible for losses incurred in this endeavor as well.

2. HB246 provides that all allowances or amounts received by the sheriff for feeding prisoners would be deposited in a special account and used for feeding prisoners in the county jail and any excess in the fund would be authorized to be used for law enforcement purposes by the Sheriff.

This aspect of the bill takes Gentry out of the ‘personal side business’ aspect of running the jail food services program.

3. A separate account in the county treasury will be created known as the “Sheriff’s Discretionary Fund”.

4. Any funds in the Sheriff’s Discretionary Fund shall be carried over from year to year.

5. In the event additional amounts are needed by the Sheriff for the feeding of prisoners, the amounts shall be paid by the sheriff from any other discretionary funds available for the operation of the office of the Sheriff.

6. An important nuance of this legislation, states the Sheriff shall not be subject to the competitive bid law for the purchase of food or supplies used for feeding prisoners in the county jail.

7. To compensate the Sheriff for income lost by removal of jail food profits from his personal account, the sheriff shall receive an annual salary equal to the annual salary of the Judge of Probate of Cullman County not to include any compensation received by the judge of probate for election purposes.

The Cullman County Judge of Probate was paid $86,013 in 2015 according to the Association of County Commission of Alabama.

The Cullman County Sheriff’s was paid $70,607 in 2015.

8. All of this will be put to the vote of the people – assuming this passes through the Alabama Senate and makes its way to a signature from Governor Kay Ivey.

9. If voted in by a vote of the people, these changes will take effect at the start of the Sheriff’s next term.

HB246 is publicly supported by both Sheriff Matt Gentry and County Commissioner Garry Marchman as well as the three House co-sponsors.

At this point, Senator Paul Bussman holds the key to HB246’s passage.

In his weekly interview on Cullman Today Friday, Senator Bussman indicated that he was undecided on the fate of the bill and noted that the Alabama State Sheriff’s Association is likely to propose a statewide amendment on the matter during the 2019 Legislative Session.

Representative Harbison is keen on moving HB246 forward. He is pessimistic that statewide legislation on the matter will materialize in 2019, or beyond.

The Alabama County Commission Association and their lobbyists are advising county commissions across the state from dabbling in local bills concerning the matter, opting for a statewide solution at a later date.

Harbison is undeterred, and wants to get this legislation passed in 2018:

“This issue doesn’t need to be another political can we kick down the road. I believe Cullman County residents want this issue resolved, and we have the power to accomplish exactly that.”

Harbison is now one big step closer to accomplishing his goal despite the opposition.

Alabama State House

Sheriffs Jail Food Controversy Moves a Step Closer To Resolution

Timothy Collins

Timothy brings an insightful holistic perspective as well as a mountain man tenacity to his various roles at Cullman Today. You can reach him at cullmantoday@gmail.com.

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