Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Prisoner Rights Cases Projected To Cost State $8 Billion Over Five Years

Eight judgments in class-action prisoners' rights actions during the last dozen years are projected to add $8 billion in costs to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) budget over the next five years. It is estimated that such costs for CDCR's past indiscretions have already cost Californians $1 billion.

Some of the most memorable cases won for California prisoners include Valdivia v. Schwarzenegger, USDC, E.D. Cal., No. CIV-S- 94-671 LKK GGH [correcting due process violations for parole violators]; Gates v. Deukmejian, USDC, E.D. Cal., No. CIV-S-87-1636 LKK-JFM [improving men's health care at the California Medical Facility, CDCR's Vacaville prison hospital]; Shumate v. Wilson, USDC, E.D. Cal., No. CIV-S-95-0619 WBS PAN [improving women's health care in two prisons]; Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995) [health and mental care at supermax prison]; Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F.Supp. 1282 (N.D. Cal. 1995) [statewide upgrade of mental health care]; Armstrong v. Davis, USDC, N.D. Cal., No. C-94-2307 CW and Clark v. California, USDC, N.D. Cal., No. C-96-1486 [enforcing disabilities rights]; Perez v. Tilton, USDC, N.D. Cal., No. C-05-5241 JSW [upgrading dental care]; and Plata v. Schwarzenegger, USDC, N.D. Cal., No. C-01-1351 TEH [upgrading health care throughout CDCR, resulting in appointment of federal Receiver taking over all CDCR health care operations] (see: PLN, March '06, pp.1-9).

These cases are monitored by four court-appointed special masters and a Receiver whose fees and costs alone totaled $77.9 million to date. While the courts have found gross constitutional deficiencies in everything from juvenile prison conditions, to adult mental/dental/medical health care, to disabled prisoner treatment and due process rights for parolees, the bill is only now coming due. In fiscal year 2006-2007, compliance costs are estimated at $376 million (up 400% from the previous year), with estimates for the next year at $326 million. But this is only the beginning. In just the juvenile prison monitoring case, court-ordered remedial costs amount to one-fourth of the annual juveni1e budget.

Indeed, it now costs $185,000 per year to house each of California's juvenile wards, four times the cost of sending a student to Harvard. Although few Californians send their children to Harvard, all suffer the necessarily reduced discretionary budget expenditures on health insurance for poor children and support for the blind, disabled and elderly. But Receiver Robert Sillen, himself sensitive to the budgetary tradeoffs, nonetheless stands firm. "The professed or insufficient amount of funds that the state may say they have is not a viable reason to violate the Constitution of the United States of America, and that's a well-established, real fact," he said.

Robin Dezember, consultant to Governor Schwarzenegger's blue-ribbon Corrections Independent Review Panel [see: PLN, March 2005, pp.1-8, “California Corrections System Officially Declared Dysfunctional’ — Redemption Doubtful”], blames the costs in part on "avaricious" prisoners' lawyers, who have earned nearly $40 million in fees in the past twelve years on these cases. Don Novey, former president of the powerful prison guards' union, blames "activist judges" for CDCR's predicaments. Bob Denninger, once second-in-command of CDCR, blames Governor Schwarzenegger's acquiescence to the prisoners' attorneys and his disinterest in appealing the lower courts' orders. But where prior state administrators have stuck their collective heads in the sand, the Schwarzenegger administration has to face the reality of the mounting bills it describes as an "inherited" problem.

Some of the already visible bills, reaching $1 billion, will create 10,000 new mental and medical health care beds in six new prison hospitals. Not yet priced are a new hospital at San Quentin, 1,200 medical beds to be added throughout CDCR, expansion of medical and dental facilities in all of CDCR's 33 adult prisons, and the 5,000 more medical beds Sillen wants that Schwarzenegger is not willing to pay for. The California Legislative Analyst's Office projects that through 2012, the new construction costs could total $4.6 billion. And that's not counting the $3.2 billion in operating costs related to just three of the court cases in that same time period.

For fiscal year 2006-2007, Sillen estimates that health care will cost $1.9 billion out of CDCR's proposed $10 billion budget. The Receivership office alone cost $5.7 million in its first six months of existence — an existence that might well last a decade. The Coleman case's monitors report billing CDCR for $20 million to date. Valdivia Monitor, Chase Riveland, reported charging the state $500,000 in his first year of work — with no end yet in sight to gain compliance. Juvenile case monitoring has cost $226,000 and Madrid has sucked up $6 million so far.

The bottom line is that California is quickly coming to a political showdown over prison costs. The question is which force will prevail: "tough on crime," which wins state politicians votes, or "reduce the prison population," an otherwise politically suicidal move that will be left to the final guardians of our Constitution, the federal judiciary? Source: Sacramento Bee.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login