Matt Gentry

Cullman County voters overwhelmingly approved amending the state constitution Tuesday, agreeing with sheriff Matt Gentry that the time has come to do away with a longstanding law that allows the sheriff to pocket public funds left over after inmates at the detention center have been fed.

With only a handful of provisional votes left to be counted, Local Amendment No. 1 passed 23,100 votes to 3,304, bringing to a decisive end the local version of a decades-old state law that has drawn controversy, national media attention, and even court reprimands to public officials in other Alabama counties. 

“From the time I campaigned for sheriff until now, I wanted the people to vote on it,” said a pleased Gentry, watching election returns come in Tuesday at the Cullman Civic Center. “I think anytime we have change, especially if you’re changing law, the people should vote — it should be their voice.”

Gentry worked alongside Alabama Reps. Corey Harbison (R-Good Hope) and Randall Shedd (R-Fairview) to craft the ballot proposal, which aims to ban the Cullman County Sheriff from personally pocketing the leftover funds that aren’t spent out of each inmate’s $1.75 per-day food budget.

Gentry said doing away with the law won’t materially affect the way his department operates, but it will remove a needless political headache from local politics going forward.

“In some areas, there is a lot of truth to sheriffs making money off of food. We do it 100 percent right here, but you can never get away from that stigma,” he explained. “I personally want to be talking about more important issues: How can we make our children safer? How can we make our communities better? This way, it puts the matter to rest once and for all — and it was the people’s voice that was heard.”

Some Alabama counties that have addressed the inmate food funding issue have done so in case-by-case fashion, while in others, the voters or the courts have spoken. 

Former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin lost his re-election bid in June to GOP primary challenger Jonathon Horton, following a national news story publicizing his legal use of hundreds of thousands of dollars of leftover food funds. And in 2009, a judge ordered former Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett to spend a night in his own detention facility after Bartlett was found to have violated a 2001 court order mandating adequate inmate nourishment.

Gentry thanked Harbison and Shedd for helping craft the amendment, as well as for helping explain it to voters, and said he’s grateful that the bill received such overwhelming local support.

“I think people agreed that it’s an outdated law that’s always brought a lot of scrutiny to the sheriff and the community; just a lot of negative attention,” he said. “In our county, we don’t have to worry about that negativity anymore. I’m really thankful to our citizens for approving the amendment, and for making their voice heard.”

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 145.

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