California Senate Rejects $7 Billion for Inmate Medical Care

By: Don Thompson AP
By: Don Thompson AP

SACRAMENTO (AP) - The state Senate on Tuesday rejected a demand
from a court-appointed receiver for nearly $7 billion in bonds to improve medical care and mental health services for state prison inmates.

The move sets up a possible clash with the federal courts.

Senators who reluctantly voted for the bill said the state has little choice because a federal judge in San Francisco could order the money taken directly from the state treasury.

Senate Republicans voted against the bond money, which needs a two-thirds majority to advance to the Assembly. They said the bill was premature because of a possible federal court settlement of various prison-related lawsuits, including over health care.

The bill failed 22-14, five votes shy of the two-thirds majority. Senators are expected to seek another vote on the bill Thursday.

"We have no choice but to pay," said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland. "You don't really get an opportunity to fool around with a federal court judge."

Current medical and mental health treatment care is so poor that two federal judges have ruled it violates inmates' constitutional rights.

But Republicans said a settlement proposed in federal court could reduce the prisons' population and in turn lessen the need for medical and mental health services.

That possible settlement between the state, inmate advocates and
law enforcement authorities was announced May 19 and could end a
series of lawsuits related to California's prisons.

At the heart of the legal complaints is overcrowding and the myriad problems that accrue from that. California's 33 state prisons have about 170,000 inmates, about 70 percent over their designed capacity.

Proper medical care and mental health treatment have suffered as the prisons have become ever more cramped, say the prison advocates
who have sued the state.

A three-judge panel was created as a result of the federal lawsuits. The judges have the option of releasing thousands of inmates early or capping the prison population.

The bill rejected by the Senate on Tuesday dealt with two aspects of those lawsuits - improving medical and mental health treatment.

Court-appointed receiver Clark Kelso asked for $6 billion to build new medical and mental health care facilities to house 10,000 inmates. Another $1 billion would go to improve existing prison health clinics.

Republicans questioned the proposed spending, noting that just last year the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to a $7.4 billion bond plan to add 53,000 prison and county jail beds statewide. About $900 million of that money would go to new dental,
mental health and medical facilities.

Republican lawmakers said Kelso might be able to take the money he requested - or at least some of it - from the $7.4 billion in bonds.

"It's time for us to step back and see how we can coordinate that solution," said Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster. "We need to have a single solution. We don't need three solutions."

Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, who carried the bill, said reducing the prison population - as called for in the proposed settlement - will not necessarily mean a reduction in the need for better mental health and medical care.

The three-judge panel is scheduled to hear details of the proposed settlement during a hearing Friday in San Francisco. Negotiators said it would set a target of reducing prison crowding by 2011 without releasing inmates early.

That would be done mainly by diverting parole violators and some criminals into alternative punishments or treatment programs instead of sending them to prison if they would serve less than a year.

Machado produced a letter in which the federal judge promised to prevent the court-appointed receiver from spending more money than

"To that end, I will not permit my Receiver to continue to undertake a construction program that becomes unnecessary due to changed circumstances, including any future reductions of the prison population," Henderson wrote.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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