Editorials

Don’t care about criminals? Maybe you should care about what their care is costing you

An inmate is moved to a housing unit after a session with a psychologist at the prison medical facility in Vacaville in 2014. The California prison system’s chief psychiatrist is alleging substandard care.
An inmate is moved to a housing unit after a session with a psychologist at the prison medical facility in Vacaville in 2014. The California prison system’s chief psychiatrist is alleging substandard care. AP file

You might not care a whit about mental health care for California prisoners. Criminals get what they deserve, right?

However, you might care that major problems could end up costing state taxpayers dearly – and that California is already spending too much on prisons, taking money away from schools and other pressing needs.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Sam Stanton has been diligently reporting, the prison system’s chief psychiatrist has been trying to blow the whistle on what he describes as substandard care that is being covered up by misleading reports to the courts and attorneys for more than 30,000 inmates who need mental health treatment.

On Wednesday, a federal judge released most of Michael Golding’s 161-page internal report detailing the problems.

The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denies his allegations, but they are backed up by the former chief psychiatrist at the prison health facility in Stockton, who claims a lack of adequate care contributed to three inmate suicides. Karuna Anand told The Bee that after she complained last year, she was reassigned to the mail room and eventually fired.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller has warned the corrections department not to retaliate against Golding and is expected to have him testify in December on whether the department has committed “fraud” upon the court.

If Mueller finds fault with the state, whatever she requires isn’t likely to be cheap.

As it stands, state prisons cost $12 billion a year, or about $1 billion more than two years ago. This is true even though the prison population has declined under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, from a peak of 163,000 in 2006 to about 119,000 this year. At the same time, there has not been a corresponding reduction in staff and pension costs are rising. So, by some measures, California’s per inmate cost of $80,000 a year is the nation’s highest.

And as the University of California helpfully points out, in 1970, prisons took less than 4 percent of state general fund revenue, while the UC and California State University systems received nearly 14 percent combined. Today, the prison system is at 9 percent, while public higher education is at 5 percent.

That is not a healthy trend for California.

As the overall prison population has declined, the percentage of mentally ill inmates has risen, including those with serious conditions that require treatment so the inmates are not a danger to guards, other inmates or to themselves.

California has taken some major steps recently to make the criminal justice system fairer, including more reasonable sentencing laws and the end of the cash bail system that unfairly keeps poor, low-risk defendants behind bars while awaiting trial. Yet, as reform advocates argue, the next step is to get the state budget in line with those priorities.

Gov. Jerry Brown deserves much of the credit for reform by admitting that the tough-on-crime laws he supported in his first go-round as governor from 1975 to 1983 went too far. To fix those mistakes, he has been willing to take on law enforcement and victims’ groups.

On mental health care, however, his administration isn’t being very responsive. Its lawyers sought to keep Golding’s report secret and to block him from testifying, saying it wanted to conduct an internal investigation first.

Brown has only two months left in office. It would be a shame to stain his legacy now.

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