Todd Entrekin, the sheriff of the small Alabama county of Etowah, recently found himself in the national spotlight when an Alabama newspaper discovered that over the course of three years he pocketed at least $750,000 budgeted for feeding the people detained in his county jail. While the inmates in his jail ate meat from a package labeled “not fit for human consumption,” the sheriff bought himself a $740,000 beach house.
And it was all seemingly legal, thanks to a 1911 Alabama law that many sheriffs interpret to mean that whatever funds they don’t spend on their jails they can keep for themselves.
The story is horrific on its own terms, which is why the actions of a small-town sheriff — Etowah County has a population of about 100,000 people — quickly made national news. It is yet one more example of the almost countless ways in which our criminal justice system dehumanizes those it touches.
What happened in Etowah, however, highlights a deeper flaw in our criminal justice system. Much of the harm and destruction the system causes is exacerbated, if not often directly caused, by the complex web of financial obligations that criss-cross the convoluted morass of agencies that we too-simplistically call our “criminal justice system.”
Insufficient attention is given to how obscure contractual terms and budgetary decisions — things that fall fully within the responsibility of the public sector — shape how criminal justice actors behave. To be clear, values and attitudes matter a lot: Many officials inarguably view those who come within their control as undeserving of compassion, if not less than human, and treat them accordingly. But everyone from private prison managers to elected sheriffs to county commissioners also pay very close attention to the fiscal incentives they face.