Lawrence County Sheriff: County Commissions should manage inmate food money

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LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. - The state remains in the national spotlight over a nearly 80-year-old law. It allow sheriffs to keep leftover money designated for inmate jail food. The practice has even drawn the eye of federal authorities in some cases.

Now a north Alabama lawmaker wants to cut sheriffs' access to that money. Meanwhile, Sheriff Gene Mitchell thinks managing the inmate food budget shouldn't be part of his responsibility. Currently, the statewide law pays inmate food money directly to the sheriff, meaning he/she also pays taxes on it.

"When I first came into office, I went before the commission," explained Sheriff Mitchell. "It ought to come straight to the county commission, county commission pays all the bills, we feed all the prisoners, and the sheriff is out of it."

He says he would want the commission to receive the food inmate money granted by the state, so the LCSO would only be responsible for the execution, but not the financial management.

Sheriff Mitchell says he gets $1.75 per prisoner per day with which to provide three daily meals.

He says he often buys wholesale or below to keep costs low, and that there is virtually no money ever left over. He says he often works with other county jails if he finds a deal on food in bulk.

Proposed Bill

Meanwhile, a bill making its way through the legislature would put the food money in a separate account. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ken Johnson (R-Lawrence County).

He says he feels it's time to let county voters decide if they want to change the law. His bill aims to cut off that personal access to any leftover money, to avoid controversy similar to the ones seen with sheriffs in other counties recently.

"This brought a lot of publicity to counties around the state," said Rep. Johnson. "This bill would establish a separate account for jail food money. If it should build an excess can only be used for law enforcement purposes."

Johnson's bill is for Lawrence County only, and it's similar to bills passed in other counties to change a decades-old law. He says it has nothing to do with the actions of the sitting sheriff and would be applicable to future sheriffs as well.

Representative Johnson says the House passed the bill. If it passes the Senate, it will go to the Secretary of State's office and be on a Lawrence County ballot this year.