Strapped state should release infirm inmates

It’s no secret that California’s prisons are desperately overcrowded. Although the prison population has lowered a bit from its peak in 2006, the present population of 163,000 is still straining a system that can barely contain, feed, house and provide medical care for its inmates.

The financial burden on the prison system was highlighted in October when a new policy, called realignment, began housing nonviolent and nonsexual criminals in county jails rather than sending them to state prisons. Since the program began, some 20,000 inmates have been diverted from state prisons to county jails, where local governments must be in charge of the prisoners with the scant funds given to them by the state.

On top of the large population behind bars in the state, the past two decades of tough criminal sanctions have left California with a surprising number of inmates who are aging, infirm and ill. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, one in five prisoners is over the age of 50.

It’s not easy for prison officials to care for inmates who are ill or dying. The system in place to care for these prisoners also is broken. In 2006, federal Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that prison medical facilities were so substandard that the entire state’s prison hospitals had to be put into receivership.

County jail officials have even fewer of the resources needed to care for ailing inmates who are now coming under their jurisdiction. According to The Bay Citizen, elderly inmates cost an average of $2,000 a day to incarcerate and care for, compared with $110 a day for an inmate in the prime of life. Unless something is done, the system faces the prospect of becoming an ad hoc hospital for dying inmates.

Fortunately, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has a potential answer to this problem. Under a bill he recently proposed, county jails would have the authority to release an inmate if physicians rule that he or she has six months or less to live. In addition, inmates who suffer from illnesses so debilitating they need 24-hour care could receive “medical probation,” allowing them to live freely, but requiring them to report to probation officers and account for what they do during the day.

Prosecutors around the state have risen to oppose this bill, arguing that inmates deserve their time behind bars, and this bill could grant release to people who haven’t yet paid for their crimes. County sheriffs officials support the bill, mainly because they are overloaded with an influx of inmates.

Leno’s bill will hardly solve the problem of California’s overcrowded prisons and jails. But it is one common-sense step forward. The bill would not automatically release any prisoner — it would give the sheriff the option. The most serious criminals, who could be dangerous even in their dying days, could still be kept behind bars. But the bill would allow for inmates who are no longer harmful to be released and receive medical care.

The idea of releasing prisoners from jails may stir emotional responses, but at a time when every penny counts for the state budget, smart ideas such as Leno’s bill need to trump emotions and be approved.

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