Adolescents held at the Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center will now be able to make phone calls to their parents or guardians free of charge, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced Monday.
Harris said eliminating the costs of phone calls between detained juveniles and their families is a small part of his larger juvenile justice reform agenda, but a necessary change.
“With respect to our juveniles, we only have a single mission and our single mission is rehabilitation,” Harris told WKNO. “Surely with respect to that population, rehabilitation is probably a lot more likely if they are able to connect with their families and make phone calls.”
Harris said phone calls can be an “exorbitant” expense for many families caught up in the criminal justice system.
The county had to renegotiate a contract with its detention facilities’ phone service provider, Global Tel Link, to eliminate the charges for juveniles’ phone conversations with families. GTL is the service provider for all of Shelby County’s detention facilities, a majority of which house adult populations.
Earlier this month, a Commercial Appeal investigation revealed that Shelby County makes a commission from phone calls made by detainees at all of its detention centers including at non-juvenile facilities such as Jail East, 201 Poplar and the Shelby County Division of Correction.
These fees generate at least $1 million dollars annually for the county’s budget. During the last fiscal year, phone calls by minors, the investigation found, brought in about $4000 of that total.
Harris said the investigation spurred the policy change at the juvenile facility. But, the mayor wouldn’t comment on plans to renegotiate the county’s contract with GTL to potentially reduce or eliminate the costs of phone services at adult detention facilities.
“We’ve got to figure out if there’s a way to hold harmless those parts of Shelby County that rely on the revenue that’s generated from that contract,” he said.
A spokesperson for Harris said GTL is now updating the phone system so juveniles can begin making free calls to parents or guardians as soon as possible.