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Cutting through the rhetoric on prison healthcare

By Josh Richman
Wednesday, October 8th, 2008 at 9:41 am in General.

Steve Frank, publisher of Stephen Frank’s California Political News and Views and a past president of the arch-conservative California Republican Assembly, let his rhetoric get in the way of facts with this tirade he posted today:

A judge has ruled that criminals are not comfortable in California prisons. he is about to rule that the State must give him $250 million now and $3 billion by the end of June, 2009. The State does not have the money, even if it were a good expenditure — which it is not. The judge would literally be taking money from children, education, the elderly and public safety. He would need, according to Dan Walters, sent Federal agents to steal the money. The bigger question here is if the judge can take the money, what stops another judge from saying we are abusing our children by not spending $20,000 per year on their education–and taking that money. Then you have welfare programs a judge can rule are under funded–and the Feds can steal that money. At what point do we stop electing governors and legislators and just give in to a totalitarian State run by unelected Federal judges. If the judge gets a dime, we no longer need Sacramento — judges will budget and tax us.

Well, I covered this hearing Monday, and Frank’s description parts with reality in several ways. Let’s break it down.

(1.) “A judge has ruled that criminals are not comfortable in California prisons.” No, a judge has ruled that criminals’ constitutional rights are being violated because they’re needlessly dying due to healthcare so poor it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. We’re not talking about sofas and televisions, we’re talking about basic medical care.

(2.) “State does not have the money, even if it were a good expenditure — which it is not.” It’s not a matter of “good” expenditure or “bad” expenditure; the state long ago lost a class-action lawsuit, then failed to meet the court’s requirements for fixing the problem, and so only then lost control of its own prison healthcare system. It has known for years the fix would be costly, and even has known the exact amount since early this year, and still has failed to act.

(3.) “The judge would literally be taking money from children, education, the elderly and public safety.” Actually, no — the $250 million the judge’s receiver is demanding in the coming weeks is already appropriated specifically for prison healthcare construction under AB 900, a $7.8 billion prison-expansion bill Schwarzenegger signed into law in May 2007. As for the rest of the $3.5 billion the receiver wants in this fiscal year, the state has clearly said it believes such money should come from lease-revenue bonds, not the general fund. It’s just that Legislative Republicans have blocked all efforts to raise this money so far.

(4.) “He would need, according to Dan Walters, sent Federal agents to steal the money.” That’s not what Dan said; he clearly posed that as a rhetorical hypothetical.

(5.) “The bigger question here is if the judge can take the money, what stops another judge from saying we are abusing our children by not spending $20,000 per year on their education — and taking that money. Then you have welfare programs a judge can rule are under funded — and the Feds can steal that money.” Well, only if the state loses class-action lawsuits proving it has denied schoolkids or welfare recipients their constitutional rights, and then utterly fails to remediate the problem. Again, the state has had many years in which to address this on its own, and chose not to do so; now it’s out of the state’s hands.

This sounds like yet another case of conservatives complaining whenever a judge finds government has failed to do its job, and requires it to step up and do so. It’s not judicial activism; the judiciary’s very purpose is to guarantee everyone — even unpopular felons — their constitutional rights, and that’s exactly what it’s doing here. This is how government is supposed to work, the judiciary checking and balancing the executive and Legislative branches’ abject failure. California dodged these costs for years, and now some just can’t stand that the tab has finally come due.

True, it’s unfortunate that this happens during a budget crunch and economic downturn — though if Sacramento would buck up and fix our structural deficit by creating reasonable revenue streams, we wouldn’t be in this mess — but that’s precisely the kind of political concern judges aren’t supposed to harbor. Again, California saw this coming yet continues to bury its head in the sand and blame it on the judge rather than taking responsibility for its own shortcomings.

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  • rewgolfer

    Josh, just because this Judge says the health care situation in prisons is “unconstitutional” doesn’t make it so. That’s his view. He one of these “activist” Judges pols are always talking about.
    99% of federal judges in the US wouldn’t being doing what this Judge is trying to do. The Northern California federal court is full of activist left wing judges, it’s considered the worst district in the US, they regularly get thier rulings overturned because of this. This Judges position is ludicrous, Calfifornia is spending so much on prisons – 11 billion annually – it’s bankrupting the state.

  • Josh Richman

    I beg to differ, Rewgolfer: it’s precisely a judge’s job to determine what is and isn’t constitutional. That’s not activism; that’s the job description.

    And if the state disagreed that its prison healthcare system was unconstitutionally inadequate, it could’ve appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court… but it didn’t. It has acknowledged the problem, but refused to pay to fix it. And the bill coming due now is so overwhelmingly big solely because the state has ignored this problem for so long.

    I’d like to see some stats to back up your contention that the Northern District is “considered the worst district in the US, they regularly get thier (sic) rulings overturned because of this.” If you mean the 9th Circuit as a whole, it does account for a lot of U.S. Supreme Court reversals — at least in part because it’s the largest circuit, and so sends more cases to the U.S. Supreme Court than any other.

  • Ms. Sheehan

    I would like to see each state/government organization be required by law to post their expenditures line by line as to what they spend the dollars on and who is paid. It may lead to “finding” money spent elsewhere.
    The funds are going somewhere…best to start looking internally. Have a loved one be dumped into the system and you will find out first hand the horror they go through due to lack of medical care. I would be supportive of spending my tax dollars to install inexpensive, live feed video cameras/speakers to monitoring officer’s and medical staff 24/7. I believe there would be a huge shift in care and accountablity, and perhaps reduce the need to allocate more money into the jail system. One also needs to ask – when cities settle with families for wrongful deaths, etc., from what bucket is that money coming from? If each person who was involved in the care/oversight for a dead or maimed inmate would be held liable and wouldn’t receive a paycheck, bonus, perhaps have to liquidate their home and other assets to pay their share for a settlement, I am confident there would be a huge drop in deaths and complaints. It’s called being held accountable for another human beings life.

  • denise

    yes ms sheehan im with you on this !!!
    and i think the people of calif should pay the pays on the laws they passed that made this mess
    PAY OR OPEN THE D– DOORS

  • stewart

    Josh? Ignore the likes of rewgolfer, he speaks with malcontent in his heart when it comes to a ‘judge’ who makes a determination based on the fact that the prison system is broken and this example health care shortcomings.
    If it is not the place of the court to determine the matter then there is only anarchy, and not that silly little thing like the 8th ammnedment to the US Constitution?
    California want to get tough on every crime then California needs to fork out for the cost, not just walls and guards, but healthcare too.

  • Rewgolfer

    Josh, Judge Henderson clearly had the “right” to order the State Corrections people to improve prisoner health care – I don’t dispute that, what was unususal in this case is ordered state corrections to pay 8 billion dollars to upgrade the prison health care system, and this ruling came at a time when the state was completely broke.
    The Corrections people report they already pay $14,000 per inmate for health care. In the Sac Bee yesterday, Dan Walters reported the state pays $45,000 per year to lock up an inmate. So Henderson wants to add 8 billion to these figures!
    Judge Henderson claims the state isn’t funding prison health care properly, the State Corrections people say they are, and they have provided the $14,000 per inmate figure to prove that they do. (possibly they are wasting money in the delivery of the service?).
    Many experts believe these prisoners get better health care in prison than they do when they are not in prison. They get free dental care while in prison, for example. But on the outside the don’t – they have to pay out of thier pocket, so they don’t go to the dentist (which is true of many poor people who lack dental insurance).
    Prisoners, in fact, have a dental plan while they are in jail, they get free dental care while in prison. Should they get top notch dental care in prison, should the come out with all new capped teeth like Brittney Spears?
    So Judge Henderson’s basic argument, that prisoners are geting sub-par care medical is absurb on it’s face, because 6 million Calfiornians – many of them working full time – have no health insurance at all, cetainly not free dental care like the prisoners have.
    Shouldn’t people working full time have better health care than prisoners? I think so. In prison you fill out a slip to get health care, but the working poor do without health care because it’s too costly. Why is it unconstitional for prisoners to have lousy health care, but not the working poor?
    Many conservative judges would take the position that prisoners deserve lousy health care, they should be lowest on the totem pole when it comes to health care. Judge Henderson certainly doesn’t think this way, because he ordered the state to pay that 8 billion.

  • Rewgolfer

    Josh, according to Wikpedia the 9th circuit has been regularly critisized for its activist judges, who tend to be quite liberal. The 9th circit was the court that said the pledge of allegiance in schools was illegal because it mnetions God (since overturned by the Surprse Court). The court has also ruled in favor of medical-pot laws, these laws that say it’s okay to grow pot for medical reasons. Judge Henderson is considered a liberal activist Judge by many, and his decision to order the state to pay an additional 8 billion for prisoner health care is an example liberal activism at its worst.

  • Josh Richman

    REW – “Why is it unconstitional for prisoners to have lousy health care, but not the working poor?” Sounds like you’re making an argument for government-run universal single-payer health care for all Californians! But even if you’re not, the simple truth is that when a state locks prisoners up, it assumes responsibility for their constitutionally adequate health care, plain and simple; choosing not to pay for it just isn’t a legal option. The state has freely admitted the care prisoners have been receiving is constitutionally inadequate; it’s merely disputing whether Henderson has the authority to compel the spending to fix it.

    Henderson didn’t put the system into receivership lightly; he’d found that on average an inmate was dying each week due to inadequate health care, preventable deaths due to the state’s malfeasance. Read his 2005 findings of fact, supported by reams of evidence and testimony. And remember, those findings came in 2005 – well before we found ourselves in this budget crisis. As I’ve said before, the state has known for a long time that this bill was coming due, and has steadfastly refused to pay it.

    As for dental care, that’s actually a separate case – and another in which the state clearly admitted its past practices were unconstitutional and agreed to change its policies and practices to bring the care up to snuff.

    And whether or not the 9th Circuit is a den of liberal activists is a debate nobody’s going to win, although I’d caution anyone against holding up Wikipedia as gospel. I’d also point out that many conservatives – including at least one arch-conservative Southern California Congressman I can think of – believe a true conservative stance on medical marijuana is to preserve states’ rights to do as they see fit without federal interference.