Senate Bill 555, which aims to lower the cost of commissary items, telephone calls and other communications for county jail inmates, will go before the state assembly for voting on Tuesday, July 9, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is asking that residents write their representatives, asking them to oppose the bill.

According to a sheriff’s department press release, the bill threatens the success of the department’s rehabilitation programs by removing funding.

The department’s INROADS programs are funded entirely by the Inmate Welfare Fund, which is itself funded by proceeds of commissary sales and a percentage of telephone charges.

To remove funding to these programs would be counter productive in a time when the state is in a desperate drive to reduce jail populations, crime rates and homelessness.

These are the very programs designed to reduce repeat offenders and prepare inmates to successfully reenter society. Without these programs ⎯ which, thanks to the commissary sales and communications fees, are not a tax burden ⎯ a greater number of people would return to drug addition and criminal activity and/or fall into homelessness after release from county jails.

Bill author Sen. Holly Mitchell stated, when presenting the bill to State Senate on May 23, that the bill “does not eliminate the Inmate Welfare Fund, it simply restates what the current law already stated.”

The bill itself states that the bill would require “items be sold for same cost paid to the vendor supplying the article.” How would commissary sales continue to support these programs if the county is required to sell items for the same price it purchased them?

As for the communications charges, those are already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, which is in the process of adding further fee restrictions and inmate protections to jail communications services.

The average cost of a 15-minute call from a San Bernardino County jail is approximately $3, far from unreasonable. The statewide average is $5.70, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Not every problem requires legislation to be solved. This is particularly true of a bill that is a characterized by its author as “a simple restatement of the current law.”

State law already requires that the funds from commissary sales and telephone charges go into the Inmate Welfare Fund and that the fund be used exclusively for inmate rehabilitation programs.

In those few cases when funds were improperly used, simply enforce the current law.

In the case of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a seven-person Inmate Welfare Fund Committee made up of local community members oversees how funds are spent.

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