Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Reducing the cost of phone calls for Illinois' incarcerated population.

A student reaction paper

Rauner Signs Bill Limiting Prison Phone Call Costs  
Imagine being a parent and being sent to jail.  The only means of communication with your family is by phone.  Each time you pick up that phone the cost is $4.08 for the first 30 minutes.  This fee is paid by you, the prisoner, or the prisoners' family.  Illinois collects $12 million a year in revenue from these calls.  According to the Illinois Campaign for Prison Justice, Illinois collects the largest amount of commissions in the country off of these phone calls.  

The new policy that Rauner signed August 19, 2016, puts caps on what contractor's can charge inmates and their families for phone calls.  Under the new law, the rate cannot go above 7 cents per minute, or .21 cents per half hour.   That's a savings of $3.87.  The article said without regular contact with family members and support while incarcerated, the recidivism rate is much higher.  The projected cost to Illinois taxpayers over the next 5 years is said to be 16.7 billion.    So why wouldn't we do anything in our power to make sure people do not reoffend?  I think this is something we should not even have to think about, the more interaction they have with their families the better.  So not only is this helping the families with their costs, it helps the prisoners with rehabilitation, and hopefully it helps taxpayers with their costs.

Professor responds:
When it comes to laws about how we treat people incarcerated in prisons, there are usually mixed motivations.  The desire to punish is usually a strong motivation, rooted in feelings of lust for revenge, but also rooted in a rational desire to uphold the law and deter others from committing crimes. There is also a motive to remove harmful persons from the general population, to reduce harm for everyone else and protect us.  But, aside from these motivations around punishment, your reaction essay focuses on the other motive, which is to rehabilitate and help incarcerated persons turn their lives around so that when they are released back into the general population, they will not commit crimes again.  There is a similar motivation to help keep prisoners happy and content, so that they will be easy to guard, will not rise up in revolt, and will not cause greater expense through health and behavioral problems associated with miserable conditions.  There is also a humanitarian desire to keep the punishment merely what the law demands (confinement), and not add misery upon the already difficult situation.

The motive to help prisoners turn their lives around has a mix of altruistic and self-interested motives behind it.  It is much less expensive for everyone if fewer people commit crimes and fewer people must stay in prisons, so we want to reduce recidivism.  Also, we want the prisoners to have better lives, and we want their potential victims (if they are not rehabilitated) to avoid the suffering they would experience if the prisoners were not rehabilitated and committed crimes again.

In your essay, you are focusing on how making phone calls more affordable may help the prisoners and may reduce recidivism.  That's good.

A cost of $4.08 for 30 minutes seems high, but not so outrageously high, until you consider how little income a prisoner has, and also consider that at minimum wage, this is about what a worker could earn in 30 minutes.  As I understand the law you have explained, a prisoner could be charged 7¢ per minute for the first three minutes, but then the cost hits the 21¢ per half hour price cap, and the next 27 minutes would be free.   This is far more reasonable.

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