Faced with an influx of inmates, sheriffs across the state are backing a bill that would allow some felons to leave jail before they have completed serving their sentences.
The legislation would apply to inmates who are dying or are so physically incapacitated that they pose no threat to the public.
The bill would help counties deal with some of the costs associated with a new state policy known as realignment. Under realignment, tens of thousands of low-level felons who would have served time in state prison are instead sent to county jails.
Gov. Jerry Brown championed realignment last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. Since October, the state has been sending offenders convicted of nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual crimes to serve their sentences in the jurisdictions where they were convicted.
As a result, counties must now bear the higher medical costs associated with more sick and disabled inmates. It costs Los Angeles County about $2,000 a day to keep an ailing inmate hospitalized, compared with $110 a day for a healthier inmate.
Help us do more.
“If you are a sheriff with an overcrowded jail and a stretched budget and you have someone who is costing $1 million a year in health care and security costs, you want to give a serious look at determining whether that person would qualify for medical probation,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who authored the legislation.
Leno's bill would grant a compassionate release to inmates who have fewer than six months to live, as determined by a physician at a county jail. Inmates could also receive medical probation in lieu of jail time, if they suffer from a permanent medical condition that requires 24-hour care for help with the activities of daily living, like dressing, bathing or feeding.
The bill would allow counties to save money on security costs and medical care. Ailing inmates with few assets could be enrolled in Medi-Cal if they are on medical probation, and the county would only have pay the portion of their Med-Cal costs not covered by the federal government, under the terms of the bill.
“Realignment happened so fast. Now, we’re just trying to make course corrections,” said Wayne Bilowit, a lieutenant with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which supports the legislation, as does the California State Sheriffs' Association.
As a result of realignment, jails are not only housing more inmates, but also many of those additional inmates are serving long sentences, putting an even greater financial strain on counties.
“We have one individual sentenced to 42 years in the county jail,” said Bilowit. As of May 30, the department had about 100 inmates serving sentences longer than six years.
But critics, including many prosecutors, say Leno's legislation gives some convicted criminals a break they don't deserve.
“Now that the state has pushed down the crowding problem onto county jails, sheriffs are understandably looking for ways to manage their populations,” said Cory Salzillo, director of legislation for the California District Attorneys Association, which opposes the new bill.
“It’s unnecessary, and it provides another method for persons who have been sentenced to a criminal term to be released,” he said.
Advocates for prisoners argue that it makes no sense for counties to pay to keep an inmate who poses no threat to the public under armed guard.
“The purposes of incarceration aren’t well served when a person who can’t care for her or himself and poses no danger to others is kept behind bars, especially when the cost to the state or the county can be extraordinary,” said Steven Fama, a lawyer with the Prison Law Office, a public interest law firm in Berkeley.
Leno's bill, which the state Senate approved, is now before the Assembly.
It’s unclear how many inmates across the state might be released if the legislation passes.
Between October and April, Los Angeles had one inmate who would have been eligible for compassionate release under the terms of the bill and nine more for whom the county would have asked for medical probation, out of about 19,000 inmates. The hospitalization and supervision of those 10 inmates cost the county $908,312 during that period.
Leno previously sponsored a similar bill allowing medical parole for state prisoners. In January 2011, California’s medical parole law went into effect, allowing permanently incapacitated felons in state prisons to be paroled. Since then, only 38 prisoners in California have received medical parole.
The state estimates it will save more than $19 million annually as a result of paroling those prisoners, although some of them have since died, according to Joyce Hayhoe, director of legislation for California Correctional Health Care Services.
“I would like to see a quicker implementation of our medical parole law, but I also understand that the Board of Parole hearings, which has final say, is very cautious,” said Leno, who authored the legislation that led to that law, too.