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County nixes revenue to save inmates money

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to forgo a six-figure revenue stream in the name of letting jail inmates and their families save money on telecommunications services.

The commissioners voted 3-1 to modify a contract with Securus Technologies Inc., with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty casting the lone vote in opposition. Commissioner Brigid Shea was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

The contract modification reduces the fee on a 20-minute call to $1.65, down from the current rate of $4.65. It also completely annuls the commission that Securus pays the county in exchange for its monopoly on telecommunications services at county jail facilities. As of Tuesday, that commission was worth more than $860,000 annually.

The change was in part precipitated by a Federal Communications Commission order issued in October that calls for sharp reductions in the fees and rates that inmates pay for phone calls, video visitations and other telecom services.

County staff had developed three options for the commissioners to consider on Tuesday. Staff recommended the first one, which the commissioners ultimately passed. The second would have lowered the 20-minute call rate to $2.50 while still allowing the county to collect a $342,008 commission each year. The third option would have maintained the status quo pending enforcement of the federal order.

Lauren Johnson of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit dedicated to prison reform, was on hand Tuesday to urge the commissioners to adopt the first option. She noted that the second option also contained the built-in ability to keep the current rates in case the FCC order is challenged in court.

“I think that we need to be doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because our hand is being forced,” Johnson said.

Daugherty expressed sympathy for Johnson and her cause but had reservations about simply walking away from $860,000 in revenue. “I’m not trying to be punitive to the inmates,” Daugherty said. “But I do want to be careful about just assuming that this money is not something that our Sheriff’s Office needs, because we know what their needs are going to be. And if you don’t have some kind of revenue, then it just is all on the taxpayer, and I don’t think that’s completely fair.”

Johnson stood her ground and argued that the county relies too much on incarceration. “So if we really were concerned about our tax dollars, we could be spending them on more diversion programs. Travis County leads the way in a lot of areas, but there are other things we could be doing besides locking people up and being entirely punitive,” she said.

In the end, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said that she had applied a three-pronged standard when evaluating the program provided by Securus. The first requirement, she said, is that any fee must be paid by the person responsible for using the provided service in the first place (or by the person’s beneficiary). Second, the fee must go to the governmental entity that is funding the service. Third, Eckhardt said, the fines must not be so high as to unduly burden low-income residents.

Eckhardt declared that by those standards, the previous deal with Securus passed the first test, partially passed the second and utterly failed the third. She explained to the Austin Monitor after the meeting that the revenue generated by the fees are “so much higher than the cost to provide the service that it is a revenue contract that acts as a de facto tax on the least able to pay.”

While the commissioners’ vote on Tuesday cuts off nearly a million dollars in revenue, it also reduces the very real threat of a sizable lawsuit. Inmates and their families have filed a class action case in federal court against several Southern California counties over what they’ve deemed “excessive” phone fees. A newspaper article about the lawsuit was included in the backup material on Tuesday’s agenda.

Eckhardt told the Monitor that she had not heard of any threat of a legal challenge against the county but added that, based on her three-prong standard, it would not be hard to make the case. However, she emphatically denied that Tuesday’s vote was a calculated attempt to prevent a lawsuit.

“We shouldn’t need a threat of change in FCC regulations or the threat of a lawsuit to stop gouging poor families who are trying to do the right thing and stay in contact with their loved ones behind bars,” she said.

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