AP

Nearly 50 county sheriffs across Alabama were sued for public records documenting the extent to which they’ve personally profited off an antiquated state law that allows them to keep any money left over from purchasing food for inmates in their jails.

Two civil rights groups—the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice—announced Monday the suit alleging 49 Alabama sheriffs have repeatedly refused to turn over public records about the controversial practice of pocketing inmates’ unused food money.

At issue is a controversial state law dating back to 1939 which allows most state sheriffs to supplement their personal incomes with taxpayer dollars left unspent after paying a set amount for inmate meals. However, as Southern Center for Human Rights staff attorney Aaron Littman pointed out in a press release announcing the lawsuit:

This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes not to line their own pockets. It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.

Littman also rightly noted that the practice has led to instances where Alabama sheriffs have pocketed tens or even hundreds of thousands of food dollars, often at the expense of the inmates in their care. In a 2009 case, Sheriff Greg Bartlett, of Morgan County, Alabama, was held in contempt and jailed by a district judge after he admitted to having kept around $212,000 in excess funds. The sheriff had earlier testified that he’d been able to keep his food costs low by going so far as to split a $1,000 shipment of corndogs with a neighboring sheriff and serving inmates corndogs twice a day for weeks on end. At the time, the presiding judge called the Alabama state law “probably unconstitutional,” and temporarily banned Morgan Country sheriffs from taking advantage of the law.

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That didn’t stop a second Morgan County sheriff from personally investing $150,000 of excess food fund money in a local used car dealership. But Sheriff Ana Franklin was only issued a paltry fine in 2017 after a judge ruled she’d taken the money before the ban had been officially lifted.

But just how much money was involved in those cases is only now known thanks to legal action taken against the two sheriffs.

“The public has a right to know whether sheriffs are meeting the basic human needs of incarcerated people in their care, or are instead filling their personal coffers,” Alabama Appleseed Executive Director Frank Knaack said in a release. “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable. Unfortunately, a number of sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”

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In the past, Alabama state legislators have unsuccessfully attempted to amend the law allowing sheriffs to pocket the food funds. According to Republican State Representative Allen Treadaway, who led a 2009 effort against the practice, lawmakers are reluctant to push for a bill that would set themselves up for a “political battle” with local sheriffs. However, if this new lawsuit results in a public disclosure of the total amount being shunted into sheriffs’ personal bank accounts, the tide of public opinion could finally turn against the controversial practice once and for all.

Splinter reached out to the Alabama Sheriff’s Association for comment on the lawsuit and will update this story if and when they reply.