S1880/A1419 passed both houses of the NJ legislature on June 27. The vote was 57-21 in the Assembly and 35-2 in the Senate. This bill passed both houses in January of this year (S1771/A4576) with votes of 47-22 with 1 abstention in the Assembly and 36-0 in the Senate but was pocket vetoed by the Governor. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee reported favorably with amendments on June 6, 2016. The legislation caps interstate and intrastate rates at 11 cents per minute and international calls at 25 cents, and bans commissions, or kickbacks, on calls currently at 50% to 70% in some New Jersey jails. Commissions drive up costs for families with loved ones in jail or prison.
In October, 2015 the FCC voted to drastically lower prison phone rates. Under these rules, a 15-minute prison phone call that used to cost up to $17 will be just $1.65. (View the fact sheet) Some families with loved ones incarcerated at a distance spend $20,000 on phone bills during a prison sentence. A recent study found that more than one in three families with a member in prison go into debt due to the cost of phone calls and visits. For children who know their incarcerated parents only through phone calls the new rates will be life-altering. Studies have shown that regular phone communication drastically reduces a prisoner’s risk of recidivism.
The substitute prohibits a State department, county, or private correctional facility from accepting or receiving a commission or any other payment from the telephone service provider based upon an amount the provider billed for telephone calls made by inmates in the correctional facility. The substitute also requires the Department of Corrections (DOC), the counties, and private correctional facilities to make available a prepaid or collect call system, or a combination of the two, for telephone services. Under a prepaid or “debit” system, funds may be deposited into an inmate account in order to pay for telephone calls, as long as the department, county, or private correctional facility is not required to provide for or administer that prepaid system. The provider of the inmate telephone service, as an additional means of payment, is to permit the recipient of inmate collect calls to establish an account with that provider in order to deposit funds for advance payment of those collect calls.
Laurice Grae-Hauck is the Outreach Coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of NJ.