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Omaha Sen. John McCollister worked out a compromise on a bill that would provide reasonably priced phone calls for jail inmates. 

The bill (LB776) advanced from first reading on a 28-2 vote of the Legislature on Monday.

It sought to lower the high cost of phone calls made by inmates at some county jails and the right to have no-cost, confidential phone calls with their attorneys. 

"It keeps families together at a hard, hard time," McCollister had said in a previous debate on the bill. 

McCollister, who introduced the bill, said it would prohibit jails from receiving excessive commissions and bonus payments to counties from phone service providers.

With the compromise, the Nebraska Jail Standards Board would oversee to ensure jails provide phone services, and provide them at reasonable costs, as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations.

On any given day, McCollister said, half of the jail population is pretrial detainees still presumed innocent. And even if convicted, all offenders have a need to stay in touch with a parent, spouse or children. 

"Keeping family ties strong strengthens the offenders' chances of being rehabilitated, and also improves outcomes for children of the incarcerated," McCollister said. 

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who had led previous filibusters on the bill, said it put into law what most jails are already doing.

He also wanted to ensure the phone company supplying the service is not held liable if a jail employee did listen in or record a telephone conversation between an inmate and attorney.

In a previous debate, Groene said the original bill had not been about reasonable costs for phone calls, but was about keeping local control and about establishing new rights for prisoners. 

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon said earlier that sheriffs in his district had said some offenders were locked up for drug and alcohol abuse, and physical abuse. Some of them use phone calls to threaten victims and keep a wife or girlfriend from pursuing assault charges. 

"What is so broken right now that we have to change the way that we're doing business?" Brewer had said. 

The bill grew out of a study by ACLU of Nebraska that found county jails statewide were charging "exorbitant" fees for inmate phone calls and taxing the resources of families already strapped for cash.

The costs, the ACLU said, resulted from kickback agreements with private for-profit companies that offer a cut of the profits for exclusive rights to provide the service. People detained in county jails could be charged up to $19 for a 15-minute phone call, even though they rarely or never had the chance to earn money, the organization said.

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On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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