There is no one in California with any knowledge of our state’s prison system who doesn’t agree that it is in crisis. While we expand the number of offenses for which incarceration is the penalty and then expand the length of sentences for those offenses, we have expanded the prison walls beyond capacity. As as result, the courts have intervened in our correctional system’s process and threatened to close the doors to new prisoners unless the conditions within the prisons improve significantly.
With state government squeezed for funding, we have seen the cost of the corrections portion of the state budget increase geometrically over the past two decades. With more and more “three strikers” clogging up the prisons, and more elderly lifers needing expensive medical care as they age and die in prison, the problem has only gotten worse. What can and should the state do about this?
What will it take to avoid the state’s prison system being taken over by the courts, with consequences that are unacceptable to the people of the state?
Assemblymember Paul Krekorian (D- Burbank) has a proposal that attempts to address at least one aspect of this situation. Here is Assemblymember Krekorian’s explanation of the bill that now sits on the Govenor’s desk awaiting either signature or veto.
The Absurdity of Incarcerating the Incapacitated:
California Prisons are Wasting Taxpayers’ Money and Endangering the Public
California’s prisons are in crisis. The system is so grossly overcrowded that a federal judge is on the verge of taking control of it away from the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. If the overcrowding is not immediately remedied, the prisons may be forced to release felons early — possibly including murderers, gang leaders and others with a history of violence.
So why are we wasting bed space and guards on inmates who are in a coma?
The cost of imprisoning terminally ill and medically incapacitated prisoners is an unnecessary, exorbitant expense for California taxpayers, often exceeding $120,000 a year for a single inmate. Not only must the state pay for expensive end-of-life medical care, but also the cost of round-the-clock guards for a person who is incapable of posing any threat to society. Using correctional officers to guard such inmates also takes them away from more important security responsibilities, creating unnecessary risks to prison personnel, inmates and the public.
Especially at a time when the state must cut basic services to people in need because of budget limitations, it is absurd that we are wasting taxpayers’ money to care for and incarcerate inmates who are comatose, or surviving only because of a ventilator, or too weak and frail in their final days of life to feed themselves. That’s why I introduced AB 1539, which has passed the Legislature and is now on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature. This bill streamlines the existing medical release process for terminally ill inmates, relieving the state of exorbitant medical and security costs, and extends the scope of the existing medical release program to include inmates who are permanently medically incapacitated and pose no risk to public safety.
The current “compassionate release” law, which was enacted ten years ago, allows dying inmates or their family to apply for re-sentencing consideration. If both the warden and the sentencing judge agree that there is no risk to public safety, the sentencing judge may release the inmate so that he or she may die in a hospice or other setting rather than in prison. This program is not available to those who are serving life sentences.
This sensible, cost-saving, humanitarian program, however, is rife with bureaucratic problems, including a lack of information and notification to eligible inmates, delays, and the absence of directives to prison medical staff. As a result, the number of medical releases in recent years has reduced by half – an unwelcome change over a period in which the inmate population has increased by about twenty percent. Many of those who have applied have been granted release too close to death for the state to see any fiscal benefit, and too late for their families to spend any meaningful time with them. In some cases, the request has been approved after the inmate has died. AB 1539 will put procedures in place to ensure that the program operates as it was intended and provides benefit both to taxpayers and to the inmates’ families.
In addition to making the existing medical release process more effective, AB 1539 will extend it to the most expensive of all inmates — those who are “permanently medically incapacitated,” but are not likely to die within six months. AB 1539 narrowly defines “permanently medically incapacitated” to include those inmates who are permanently unable to perform activities of daily living and require 24-hour total care due to an irreversible medical condition. Such conditions include coma, persistent vegetative state, brain death, ventilator-dependency, and loss of control of muscular/neurological function – conditions that prevent any possible risk to the public, and also prevent any further punitive value from continued incarceration.
AB 1539 is a common sense measure that will save a tremendous amount of money that is now wasted on overtime costs and medical expenses for a relatively few inmates. The effective and carefully-considered release of even a few terminally ill and permanently medically incapacitated inmates, who cannot pose any threat to the public, could potentially save millions of tax dollars that can more appropriately be spent on other policies and programs that will make a real difference in keeping Californians safe. At the same time, this measure allows families the chance to heal, and allows inmates to receive appropriate end-of-life medical and hospice care.
In response to the prison overcrowding crisis, Governor Schwarzenegger recently observed that “release of the old, feeble, and sick who pose no threat to the public” could be an approach to overcrowding that he would support. AB 1539 is just such an approach. It is a bill that simultaneously promotes fiscal responsibility and public safety, and the Governor should sign it into law.