A sheriff in Alabama bought a house using money that was budgeted to feed jail inmates. When I saw this headlined a week ago I assumed that this was a run-of-the-mill story about white collar fraud and I ignored it. Yesterday, prodded by new developments, I investigated further. The truth is much worse than I had imagined. What the sheriff did was perfectly legal.
Alabama has a Depression-era law that allows sheriffs to “keep and retain” unspent money from jail food-provision accounts. Sheriffs across the state take excess money as personal income — and, in the event of a shortfall, are personally liable for covering the gap.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin told the News that he follows that practice of taking extra money from the fund, saying, “The law says it’s a personal account and that’s the way I’ve always done it.”
Sheriffs across the state do the same thing and have for decades. But the scale of the practice is not clear: “It is presently unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms,” the Southern Center for Human Rights wrote in January.
And if that isn’t bonkers enough. It gets worse. The primary source for the story, written by journalist Connor Sheets, was Sheriff Entrekin’s lawnmower, Matt Qualls. Qualls has since been arrested and is now in a jail overseen by Sheriff Entrekin.
Qualls, who had never been arrested before, faces six charges and is being held on a $55,000 bond, Sheets reports. He is detained in a jail that Entrekin oversees.
…The sheriff’s office denies involvement in Qualls’ case, noting that the landscaper was not arrested or charged by the sheriff’s office. The extra charges were added by the Drug Enforcement Unit, which consist of agents drawn from the sheriff’s department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
Addendum: You may be reminded of the story that Tyler and I use to open our principles of economics textbook. Ship captains in the 18th century were paid to ship convicts to Australia according to a very similar procedure as used today (!!!) to fund prisoner food in Alabama–and the results were equally predictable.