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Affordability Bill Concerns

Calif. Assembly Panel Advances Bill to Make Inmate Calls Free

California could make jail and prison calls free under a bill cleared Tuesday by the Assembly Public Safety Committee. San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto disagreed with other county sheriff departments that opposed SB-1008. Meanwhile, at a Senate hearing, ISP associations and Republicans opposed a bill to restrict state contracts only to ISPs that offer affordable internet services.

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The inmate calling bill by Sen. Josh Becker (D) will advance to the Assembly Communications Committee. The Senate voted 23-6 May 26 to pass SB-1008, which would eliminate all telecom fees in California county jails and state prisons. Phone calls from California state prisons currently cost 2.5 cents per minute under an agreement between the state corrections department and Global Tel*Link. The California Public Utilities Commission imposed an interim 7 cents-per-minute cap on intrastate charges at jails and prisons. Securus challenged the CPUC’s order in state court (see 2205260062).

SB-1008 would require correctional facilities to provide at least 60 minutes of voice services per day as long as it doesn’t interfere with “rehabilitative, educational, and vocational programming or regular facility operation,” said committee analysis Monday. It would prohibit state, county or city agencies from getting revenue from providing service. The CPUC would have to establish service-quality standards.

Fees make it hard for families to keep in touch but fuel a $1.5 billion prison phone calling industry nationally, Becker told the committee at the livestreamed hearing. Committee Vice Chair Tom Lackey (R) raised a concern the bill would be difficult to implement, particularly a provision to give each inmate 60 minutes of voice service daily. San Francisco and New York City haven’t had trouble, responded Becker, adding it usually ends up being about 30 minutes a day.

San Francisco’s free calls policy is working well, said Miyamoto. His county was first in the nation to make calls free in 2020. San Francisco had a 41% increase in call volume overnight after the change was made, Miyamoto said. Its fixed rate contract with a provider is a "better deal for us" than paying per minute, he said. "It's been a very positive change for everyone."

But Los Angeles, Riverside and other sheriff's departments opposed the bill. “What works in one county may not work in the other 57 counties,” said Usha Mutschler, California Sheriffs' Association legislative representative. The association understands the importance of communications between incarcerated persons and their families and friends, she stressed, but the association must oppose the bill until it knows how lost revenue will be replaced.

California can find money in its $16 billion public safety budget to support free calls, Becker responded. Supporting the bill, Committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D) said he’s glad the sheriffs’ association wants to ensure money “actually” goes to inmate welfare and not just operations. Technology can drive down costs, he added. Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D) said he wrote a similar bill years ago and offered to help to get Becker’s proposal through the Assembly.

This is just a way for us to stay connected as a family,” testified Kari Arzate, whose husband is incarcerated.

Free voice services would be “a good first step,” but “other methods of communication like video calling and electronic messaging are equally important and need to be addressed” through legislation or CPUC regulatory action, emailed Prison Policy Institute General Counsel Stephen Raher.

An Assembly bill seeking to leverage state contracts to achieve digital equity needs “quite a bit of work,” said Senate Governmental Organization Committee Chair Bill Dodd (D) in another hearing livestreamed Tuesday. But Dodd supports advancing AB-2751 for now, with hopes that it will be improved over the next two weeks, he said.

AB-2751 failed in a 3-5 vote later that afternoon, with several legislators in the 15-member panel not voting. The bill would have required CDT to create a net equality program requiring state agencies to make contracts only with ISPs that offer 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for at most $40.

AB-2751 strays into areas of federal regulation where California doesn’t belong, said Sen. Melinda Melendez (R): It wouldn’t likely survive legal challenge. Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R) also questioned state authority: "Providing incentives is one thing. Controlling prices is something different.”

USTelecom members all have affordable plans and participate in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, said the broadband association’s California lobbyist Yolanda Benson: AB-2751 amounts to federally preempted broadband regulation. The California Cable and Telecommunications Association also opposed.