UPDATED: Bill lowering inmates' phone costs passes; aquifer bill clears Senate 58-0

UPDATED: Bill lowering inmates' phone costs passes; aquifer bill clears Senate 58-0

SPRINGFIELD — A bill sponsored by Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, that aims to reduce phone costs for people incarcerated in Illinois prisons was sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner Tuesday for his approval.

Also Tuesday, the sponsor of a bill to let undocumented students compete for scholarships at public universities said the legislation didn't have enough votes to pass in the House and would be worked on over the summer.

Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero, said SB 2196 "needed some work" but would be brought back this fall. It had passed the Senate, 30-19, in April.

Aquifer bill

The Senate approved, 58-0, Senate Bill 325 which creates a 21-member Mahomet Aquifer Protection Task Force to identify current and potential threats to the water source deep beneath several central Illinois counties and to develop a plan to maintain its integrity.

The House is expected to take up the bill in June.

Most of the members of the task force would be appointed by the governor.

“They could propose legislation to ensure that it remains pristine,” said Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. “These will be experts from local government, environmental experts, some people from the University (of Illinois) who will get together and review issues involving the aquifer.”

The task force would have until July 1, 2017, to report its findings and offer recommendations to the Legislature about protecting the aquifer, which is Champaign-Urbana’s water source.

Last year the Legislature approved bills prohibiting the disposal of manufactured gas plant waste at landfills above aquifers.

“There seemed to be a lot of confusion all spring among individual experts as to what our next step should be,” said Bennett, “and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. So Senator Rose and I thought that the best thing to do would be to put all the best minds together in a room, make it bipartisan and work something out for the next bill.”

Prison phone calls

The prison phone calls bill, HB 6200, "strikes a balance between lowering the cost of the calls for families while preserving a needed revenue stream for the Department of Corrections," said Senate sponsor Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago.

"The driving objective of our criminal justice system should be rehabilitation and not profit. Exorbitant rates, fees and member charges for phone calls isolate inmates from their loved ones, tearing the fabric of families and communities," said Collins.

Collins and Ammons said they expect Rauner to sign the legislation, which passed 79-38.

"There is no doubt from my experience and Senator Collins," said Ammons. "We worked with his office on this. We negotiated the bill and we expect that he'll sign it."

Currently in the Illinois Department of Corrections, inmates pay a flat fee of $4.08 for a phone call of up to 30 minutes, said Brian Dolinar, coordinator of the Illinois Campaign for Prison Justice. Under the legislation, starting Jan. 1, 2018, calls would be no more than 7 cents a minute, or 23 cents a minute for international calls.

"Our state collects the largest amount of commissions in the country, some $12 million a year," said Dolinar. "Illinois has one of the least affordable rates of calls from prison."

The state is expected to continue to get about $12 million a year in commissions from prison calls, the sponsors said, because the volume of calls will increase.

"Our research shows that in other states — 10 of them — once they reduced the cost of the phone calls there were more calls made, so their actual revenue went up, not down," said Ammons.

Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said "quite frankly we don't know what they were doing with that money. In no other industry would we ever accept to be overcharged. It would not be acceptable. But for some reason it was acceptable for those who could least speak out on their own behalf."

Wandjell Harvey-Robinson of Champaign, a student at Parkland College, said at one point both of her parents were in prison simultaneously "and the duration of their time weakened our relationship."

Harvey-Robinson, 20, now works for a group known as The Ripple Effect which, she said, "reaches out to families with incarcerated loved ones and we lean on each other in a sense."

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BruckJr wrote on May 31, 2016 at 5:05 pm

Why not?  It's not like there are any important issues to be working on in Springfield.