Sheriff Coppinger concerned about free call costs

Free phone calls for inmates in Massachusetts are all but certain to become a reality later this year, with the Legislature moving full steam ahead on the proposal, and Gov. Maura Healey signaling support for the idea. But, Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger wants to know how exactly the state intends to foot the bill for the new program, which he said would create a $2.7 million budget shortfall in his department.

The Legislature sent Healey the proposal as part of its fiscal year 2024 budget, and the governor returned the phone calls provision of the bill, seeking a delay of implementation until this December as opposed to the July 1 retroactive date proposed by lawmakers. Coppinger said he expected officials to work out the details of how exactly the program would work by December, but expressed concern about the financial implications, given the fact that funds from phone calls, which cost 14 cents per minute, are put back into inmate programming.

“I can’t take a $2.7 million hit on my budget and absorb these costs,” Coppinger said in a recent telephone interview. “We’re going to have to get a supplemental budget from the state to come in and fund these things because … I still have to provide the services.”

“There’s just a lot of issues here,” he continued.

Each year, the department takes in roughly $600,000 in revenue from the phone calls, Coppinger said. The $2.7 million figure also includes the $1.5 million total cost of the phone service, which encompasses video-call tablets housed inside the jail in addition to the normal voice calls.

Coppinger, a former Lynn police chief who is in his second term as sheriff, said he supports inmates being allowed to speak to loved ones, but said many questions remain about what exactly the legislation might allow — particularly around what restrictions can be placed on inmates. Under the current system, phone calls are limited to those that inmates can afford, and each call is approved by the Sheriff’s Department, a key measure designed to prevent repeat offenses and protect victims, Coppinger said.

With calls being free, Coppinger said he worried some of those restrictions might fall away because of the financial concerns the department would face.

He said he would like to see a “reasonable alternative” to the free calls found.

“It is a delicate balance,” he said. “Free phone calls … it creates a lot of problems here in the jail … because there are people out there that don’t want to hear from them.”

“Are they going to be calling folks outside too much?” Coppinger wondered.

While Coppinger did not immediately provide specifics of how the money brought in via phone calls is used, he cited some of the programming the department has been able to offer, including anger-management classes and other behavioral classes from Spectrum Health Services, as well as educational services offered by Northern Essex Community College and Merrimack College.

“That $600,000 would go to pay some bills like that,” Coppinger said. “We’re paying the vendors to come in and give them services like the educational, vocational, (and) clinical services that they need.”

A request for comment sent to Healey’s office was not returned.

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