VICTORY: Butte County Rejects Unfair Tax on Its Most Vulnerable Families

Feb 23, 2016
Steven Meinrath

Page Media

$100 US bill with handcuffs

Last year, Butte County was one of 32 California Counties that submitted bids for state financing to build new jails. Butte, however, was the only county to try to use Inmate Welfare Fund money to pay the county’s required contribution. After the ACLU and other community groups cried foul, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) voted to award Butte County the $40 million it requested, but conditioned that award on the Board obtaining a determination of the legality of the use of IWF funds for this purpose and, in any event, the Board voted to “encourage” Butte County to find other funds to meet its required 10% match.

In December, the ACLU sent the Butte County Board of Supervisors a letter warning that their proposal to take $685,000 from their county Inmate Welfare Fund to help build a new jail was both illegal and terrible policy.

Inmate Welfare Fund money is raised mostly from surcharges on phone calls between inmates and their families. Inmates are not allowed to handle money so the cost of the phone calls falls on their families. In other words: jacking up rates on these calls amounts to a tax on inmate families, which discourages families from staying in touch with their loved ones in jail. This, while research shows that maintaining family ties is crucial to reducing the chances that person will return to jail.

After the Board’s vote, and after the ACLU’s letter to the Butte County Board of Supervisors, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea wrote the BSCC stating that, despite his belief that the use of the Inmate Welfare Funds was legal and “the most appropriate funding source,” he would recommend to the County Supervisors that they return the $685,000 to the Inmate Welfare Fund and instead use money from a local law enforcement assistance fund to meet the county’s required contribution to finance the new jail. Today, the Butte County Board of Supervisors voted to adopt Sheriff Honea’s recommendation and return the money to the IWF.

The ACLU applauds the Board of State and Community Corrections for recognizing that using Inmate Welfare Fund money for jail construction is inappropriate and bad public policy. We also commend Sheriff Honea and the Butte County Supervisors’ decision to use law enforcement assistance funds instead of the IWF.

These taxes on inmate-family phone calls have raised large sums of money in California, in some counties amounting to millions of dollars annually. This has been a tempting source of funds for sheriffs to pay for all types of things unrelated to inmates’ welfare, and reports of these Inmate Welfare Funds being misused are widespread. Because new Federal Communications Commission regulations place limits on these surcharges, inmate welfare funds will be reduced in California and the ACLU encourages the BSCC and county sheriffs to find more equitable sources of funds that support the legitimate needs of prisoners and that don’t undermine public safety.

Steven Meinrath is an Advocate with the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy.