Judge threatens state with $1,000 per day fines over treatment of mentally ill inmates

A federal judge in Sacramento is threatening to fine the state $1,000 per day starting next month for every inmate whose transfer to mental health care facilities is delayed beyond the state’s own deadlines for providing such care.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller issued her 15-page order Wednesday in a long-running dispute between the state and advocates for mentally ill inmates, who contend the state still is not in compliance with its own rules for how quickly inmates must be transferred to mental health care programs.

In her order, Mueller wrote that the state has fallen out of compliance repeatedly with its own deadline for providing care and that “this cycle must be broken.”

The order threatens the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the state Department of Hospitals with the fines being assessed if they are not in compliance by May 15, although the judge added that the fines would not be collected before a Nov. 3 hearing “for consideration of findings of contempt and requirement of payment of fines... If no fines have accumulated, the hearing will be vacated.”

State hospital officials had no immediate comment Wednesday. Corrections spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in an email that “mental health care delivery to inmates is very important to the department.”

“At this time, CDCR is evaluating the judge’s order, as well as our options in this matter,” she added.

Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing the inmates, said evidence in the case shows the state has the beds needed to treat inmates but has fallen behind because of various problems involving security classifications of inmates and winter storm damage to some treatment space at Salinas Valley State Prison.

He added that the state “has been doing better” but that “there hasn’t been a lot of voluntary movement on this.”

“Our goal is not to get them fined but to get the patients into the beds,” Bien said.

The order requires the state to follow its own guidelines that require patients in need of intermediate care to be transferred for treatment within 30 days and those needing acute care within 10 days.

Mueller ordered a separate hearing for Aug. 29 on how the state is handling the requirement that inmates in need of immediate help be transferred to a mental health crisis beds within 24 hours.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam