By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday slashed U.S. prison telephone rates for local and long-distance calls to 11 cents a minute, from levels as high as $14 a minute.
The commission's 3-2 vote to reduce rates for inmates' calls effectively cut its cap on interstate calls by up to 50 percent, it said in a statement.
The lower fees are aimed at helping prisoners maintain contact with family and friends. Greater contact lowers the likelihood that inmates will return to prison after release and the FCC move is part of the U.S. prison reform effort, the statement said.
"With today’s action, we will provide material relief to nearly 2 million families with loved ones behind bars, " FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement.
The FCC order cuts all local and long-distance rates to 11 cents a minute for debit and prepaid calls from state and federal prisons. It provides tiered fees for jails to account for jails' higher costs.
The commission had cut interstate rates in 2013 to an interim rate of 21 cents a minute on debit and prepaid calls.
The cost of a prison call had swollen to as much as $14 a minute when extra fees were tacked on, the panel said. The commission's order caps or bans extra fees and bars flat-rate calls.
The FCC said it would carry out more rule-making for prisons, including rate caps for international calls and more competition.
In another prison reform move on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. It includes reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations and giving judges more discretion in sentencing.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, welcomed the FCC's vote.
"Today’s FCC action will help ensure that families are not forced to choose between their basic needs and a phone call with their loved ones," he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Eric Walsh)