Because the Legislature wouldn't fix the inmate medical system, the state is
facing a $7-billion bill.
leaders are faced with the job of under-funding the state's already struggling
schools and cutting services to the poor because of a chronic budget shortfall,
exacerbated by the weak economy. But on the bright side, we stand to get a
whole bunch of gleaming new prison buildings.
The federal receiver in charge of the state's prison healthcare system has
requested $7 billion to pay for seven new facilities for chronically sick or
mentally ill inmates. The Legislature will have little choice but to go along
because the receiver, J. Clark Kelso, is backed by the power of the federal bench,
which can order the state to spend the money. This comes at a time when the
shortfall has been projected at up to $16.5 billion, though it has since been
reduced through borrowing and budget cuts.
Lawmakers are crying foul about the added burden on the budget, even though
they have no one but themselves to blame. A prison crisis that combines
overcrowding, a negligent healthcare program and a crumbling juvenile justice
system has been worsening for three decades, during which time dozens of
studies have chronicled the problems and pointed the way to solving them. The
reports are now gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, ignored by lawmakers.
Indeed, legislators and the electorate have decisively made matters worse by
approving get-tough-on-crime initiatives that further cram prisons and do
nothing to address conditions inside.
One of the latest studies, released in January 2007 by the independent state
oversight agency known as the Little Hoover Commission, is a model of the form.
It practically shrieked at lawmakers to implement the needed reforms, which
include creating an independent sentencing commission that could lengthen terms
for the most dangerous criminals while creating community-based options for
nonviolent offenders, reinventing the state's disastrously inefficient parole
system and expanding prison-based drug rehabilitation and job-training
later, the Legislature has acted on none of those recommendations. Its sole
accomplishment on corrections was to approve $7.9 billion in new prison and
jail construction. Kelso's order demonstrates the inadequacy of this strategy:
His call for $7 billion in bonds comes on top of what the Legislature has
approved, and all this construction still may not satisfy a separate
three-judge panel that is considering the overcrowding crisis and could order
further spending. We simply cannot build our way out of this problem, especially because
all these new facilities will add crushing operational expenses to future state
only solution is to cut the prison population by implementing reforms such as
those suggested by the Little Hoover Commission. And lawmakers might want to
get on with it before they get hit with another whopping bill from the federal
justice system. Delay and inaction have gotten us to this point; only the
courage to act on these proposals will get us out.
2008 Los Angeles Times