California Lawmakers Stall over Price of Prison Healthcare and Overcrowding Reforms

While other legal disputes may have received a greater share of the national media attention over recent weeks-such as the hotly-contended California Supreme Court decision to grant marriages to same-sex couples, a nasty dispute in the state legislature threatens to unravel the state's penal system.

Minority-party Republican Senators recently blocked a bill for the third time that would update existing prison healthcare facilities and create more than 10,000 new beds in seven facilities for ill inmates. More comprehensive reform is needed, argue the blocking legislators, and no healthcare reform should be introduced without consideration of the entire system.

A court-appointed receiver has called for the state congress to push the legislation through or he would be forced to obtain the nearly $7 billion required for the health facilities project outside of legislature approval. And the receiver does have the power to do so, backed as he is by a federal court that can order the state to surrender the funds.

What many critics of the measure also point toward is the reshuffling of inmates from state penitentiaries into local city and county jails, a shift that would also potentially free thousands of inmates with tight limits put on the prison population.

However, such a step would be welcome to many prison reform advocates who support reduction in prison populations of non-violent criminals-such revision of the incarceration standards like this would not only be a more fiscally sound policy, it could be a cultural signal that works to improve America's perspective on the criminal (a full 1% of whose population is currently incarcerated, according to the Washington Post).

One of the actions that has been affected by the dispute is an ongoing lawsuit filed by mentally ill prison inmates that has been stalled for 18 years. This is the most extreme case, but it's certainly not the only case; the state also faces other healthcare lawsuits involving medical care, mental health, dental care and disability access.

Advocates of the prison reform bill in California, though in agreement with the tremendous burden placed on the state by the massive $7 billion price tag, believe that the state has so long neglected its crumbling juvenile system, overcrowding, and healthcare problems that lead to personal injury that they see the price for the reforms as a kind of fine.

The silver lining in the tremendous costs for the construction of the new healthcare facilities would be that these improved conditions would stop many of the pending lawsuits against the state for medical violations. Due to the unpredictability of the jury verdicts involved, the costs may in fact pay for themselves if even one major lawsuit is averted.

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