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Bill Would Expedite Dying Inmates' Release

Government: Legislation going to governor would require judges to act on requests within 10 days. Proponents say the state would save money by allowing more terminally ill prisoners to be freed.


SACRAMENTO — For seven months, convicted burglar Frederick Lopez lay dying of AIDS in a bleak prison hospital while a warden's request "strongly urging" that he be allowed to spend his last days in the care of his family languished in the Orange County courthouse.

"He suffers from dementia," said his sister. "He cannot walk. He cannot dress himself. It's hard for him to feed himself. He's dying, and I think he deserves to die outside prison near his family."

After the intervention of Catholic Charities and a local attorney, a judge on Thursday finally ordered Lopez's release to a hospice near his family.

His sister, Olivia Villicano of Anaheim, said the decision came almost too late for Lopez, 54, who is scheduled to be released from custody this week but is expected to live only a few weeks longer.

"I know criminals are criminals and they break the law, but they are still human beings," she said. "It's not like my brother killed or raped anybody."

This week a bill is expected to go to the governor that will address Lopez's plight and those of other terminally ill inmates who prison officials believe should be allowed to die in the care of their families.

The legislation, prompted in part by the graying of California's mushrooming prison population, establishes in law firm procedures for the "compassionate release" of terminally ill inmates, and for the first time mandates that courts act quickly on the requests of the dying.

From 1991 through 1994, prison officials recommended compassionate release for 124 inmates, and the courts granted it in 87 cases. More recent figures are not available.

"Compassionate release is not a high priority for the court system or the judges," said Judy Greenspan, director of the HIV/AIDS prison project for Catholic Charities. "The delays in the compassionate release process never really fail to amaze me."

The measure was sponsored by Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), whose interest in the issue was sparked by the case of a terminally ill inmate who was never released even though he was in a vegetative state.

His care in the final six months of life ultimately cost the state $888,709, including more than $200,000 for armed correctional officers while he lay immobile in a Marin County hospital.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Villaraigosa, "to keep somebody on a 24-hour watch when you can do something that will cut costs and is more humane to these people."

The legislation comes as California's three-strikes law is putting more people in prison and keeping them longer than ever before. As the prison population ages, the system will have to cope more and more with the health problems of the elderly and the terminally ill.

It also coincides with the increase among prisoners of the deadly AIDS virus.

The bill has been passed by both the Assembly and the state Senate by wide margins and is scheduled to be taken up again next week by the Assembly before it moves to the governor's desk.

Gov. Pete Wilson has vetoed two similar bills in previous years, but Villaraigosa said he is confident that the current bill has addressed Wilson's objections.

However, Wilson press secretary Sean Walsh said Tuesday, "We still will have to review it in final form."

Villaraigosa said the bill has gotten widespread support from lawmakers not only because of its humane aspects but also because it has the potential to cut state costs.

The state spends $21,000 a year to incarcerate a healthy inmate, but for the terminally ill the cost is more than $75,000. If dying inmates are released, the cost of care is considerably less because they no longer need to be guarded and because most will qualify for Medi-Cal, the federal-state program that provides medical care for the poor.

Ernest Eady, the Orange County attorney who represented Lopez, said that, with the passage of the three-strikes law, older inmates are going to become increasingly common in the prison system and that prison costs will skyrocket as a result.

"You take a guy who's 45 years old, commits his third offense and now with three strikes he gets a 25-to-life sentence," Eady said. "That means he will still be in prison when he's 65. And guys that age who are in prison usually haven't been taking real good care of themselves. . . . When they get to be 50 or 60, they're a mess."

The California Department of Corrections, which has taken a neutral position on the legislation, passed its own regulations years ago establishing procedures for wardens to request the release of terminally ill inmates. But Greenspan of the AIDS prison project said that use of those regulations varies from prison to prison and that, even when they are used, the courts often don't act quickly.

"When an inmate is judged by a prison doctor to have six months to live and it takes three months for the court to act, that doesn't give them much time," she said.

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