LOS ANGELES - Despite concerns over the costs of the program and how it will be funded, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a motion Tuesday to provide free phone calls for jail inmates.
"The data is crystal clear — one-third of families go into debt trying to maintain contact with those who are incarcerated, and this primarily impacts low-income people of color, specifically Black women and Latinas," Supervisor Hilda Solis, who introduced the motion, said in a statement following the vote. "Free phone calls are about transforming how Los Angeles County goes about business. We should not be in the business of burdening families already struggling to cope and survive. Rather, we need to be about creating safety nets that break the chains of systemic racism and inequities."
The proposal, however, was met with some unexpected debate when Supervisor Holly Mitchell — who originally co-sponsored Solis' motion — asked for the matter to be delayed for 90 days so another report could be prepared analyzing the full fiscal impact of no longer charging for inmate calls.
Mitchell insisted she was not opposed to the idea of free calls, but said her concern was strictly budgetary, noting that the board had previously approved roughly two dozen other motions with unspecified funding sources that will impact the county budget.
Solis responded with an impassioned plea for her colleagues to move forward on the issue, saying Tuesday's motion was her third attempt to get the costs removed for inmate phone calls, and another delay would just continue a financial burden for relatives of inmates.
"I don't think we can wait any longer," she said during the meeting.
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County CEO Fesia Davenport told the board that based on the current volume of inmate calls, the annual fiscal impact of making calls free would be about $27.6 million. But since the number of calls would likely increase once they are free, the true cost would be closer to about $30 million.
She noted that funding is available through a pair of programs, including county Care First Community Investment dollars, but she noted that any use of those funds must first be reviewed and approved by an advisory board established to oversee the money. The CFCI fund was created by voter approval of a measure calling for the county to set aside 10% of its locally generated unrestricted revenue for community investment and alternatives to incarceration.
In addition to the free calls, Solis' original motion also called for the sheriff and county officials to return with a report in 90 days with an implementation plan for "more and diverse programming" for jail inmates.
The board ultimately voted to move forward with implementing the free calls.
"There was an effort to delay this action through an additional report back," Solis noted in her statement after the vote. "Additional report backs mean delays to something we know is worthwhile, an investment in the reduction of recidivism, and an investment in families. With the support of advocates, including those who were formerly incarcerated, I want to thank my colleagues for backing my proposal and not prolong our community's call for action."
Solis' motion stated that easing inmate telephone access to family and friends "is a factor in reduction of the rate of recidivism" ... and has been shown to reduce misconduct in jails "by lowering anxiety and tension."
"Providing free phone calls in county jails will relieve and remove the huge financial strain from families who have been unfairly impacted by the incarceration of their loved ones," the motion states. "We should not be penalizing families simply for association."