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Birmingham Sues Jefferson County Sheriff Over City’s Jail Inmates

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By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

The city of Birmingham today filed a lawsuit against Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway for not accepting city inmates, according to a filing in Jefferson County Circuit Court.

It’s an extraordinary step in a dispute between the two sides that dates back nearly two years and involves the city and county jails, money, and politics.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said he began talks with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office as far back as February 2022 and filed the suit “not because I want to, but because I feel I’m being forced to,” he said. “I do it knowing that relations are important, but I feel like the city is boxed in.”

In its filing, the city contends that the sheriff is required by state code “to accept into custody at the Jefferson County jail individuals arrested by Birmingham Police officers within the police jurisdiction of the City for both on-sight violations of State law and those arrested for misdemeanor offenses under State law.”

It states that the sheriff has declined to sign an Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Form dealing with the transportation of arrestees to the Jefferson County Jail, “thus willfully refusing into custody at the Jefferson County Jail individuals arrested by Birmingham Police Officers within the police jurisdiction of the City for on-sight violations of State law as well as those arrested for misdemeanor offenses under State law.”

Woodfin said he has done everything he can to resolve the matter.

“It is not my desire to be here, but we are,” he said. “We didn’t get here in haste. I didn’t run down a hill to sue the county [nor am I] having some hissy fit. We are here, honestly, because the county is not obeying what the state law says.”

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office declined comment, saying, “We can’t comment on pending litigation. … It will be addressed in court.”

For nearly two years, the two sides had discussed an intergovernmental agreement related to the provision of jail services where the Sheriff’s Office could accept all of the city of Birmingham prisoners for $65 per diem per individual, which, according to the city, was comparable to similar arrangements around the county and other municipalities, including the nearby city of Tarrant, which charges $65 per diem per individual. Jefferson County has asked for $110 per diem per individual.

Woodfin said today’s lawsuit is more about the Jefferson County Commission, which controls the sheriff’s budget, than it is about Pettway.

“I’m not even really mad at the sheriff,” Woodfin said. “I don’t knock the sheriff. I don’t blame the sheriff. I do think the sheriff is in a very hard place politically, where he is a Democrat sheriff who has to deal with a majority Republican county commission. I think they are disrespectful to him, and they want to hijack his budget. I think are not allowing him to negotiate in good faith.”

The Jefferson County Commission is made up of three Republicans—Commission President Jimmie Stephens and Commissioners Joe Knight and Mike Bolin—and two Democrats—Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson. Pettway is also a Democrat.

Woodfin pointed the finger at Stephens, the person he’s had most of the talks with, as being responsible for holding up an agreement.

“I told [Stephens], ‘If Mark Pettway were a Republican, this wouldn’t even be a conversation,’” Woodfin said. “Partisan politics have played a deep role in this. … The issue is really between the sheriff and the county commissioners, majority Republican, who want to dictate to him what he should be doing. That’s not fair. We are victims of that.”

Stephens told the Birmingham Times that the matter is not about partisan politics but a “crisis” the city of Birmingham has created for itself and now wants to be bailed out by Jefferson County.

“They chose not to invest in their city jail, and now they consider it a crisis and want Jefferson County to bail them out,” Stephens said. “Their solution creates a hardship on the [county] jail. We’ve worked hard to make sure there are no overcrowding conditions.”

Stephens said other municipalities also want the county to accept its inmates.

“If we offer that arrangement to the city of Birmingham, we have to offer that to every municipality within the county. There are no favorites,” Stephens said. “We need to work on a wholistic solution, which will be a [regional] jail. … The city of Birmingham can either take part in that or they can take the attitude they have now.”

Asked about partisan politics, Stephens said, “This has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican. It has to do with the governmental and fiscal policies that were implemented by the city of Birmingham and its lack of foresight to invest in their infrastructure, and the ability of Jefferson County and its commission to be able to invest in our infrastructure so we will not be … thrust back into an overcrowding situation.”

(This story will be updated)