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A Menace No More

May 06, 2003

No one like violent rapist Steven Martinez should be allowed to walk the streets. His 1998 life sentence was a social good. Today, allowing him on the streets is not the issue. After being stabbed in a prison fight, he is a quadriplegic, able only to turn his head, speak and swallow. It is pointless and costly to keep him in prison.

California taxpayers pay $730 a day for his hospital cell alone in high-security Corcoran prison. On top of that are medical procedures, drugs and the salaries of the two or three well-paid corrections officers who are required by state regulations to watch him around the clock. What, are they afraid he'll escape?

A bill by Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) could easily halve the state's tab for Martinez by allowing the California Department of Corrections the discretion to release "incapacitated felons" like him from prisons to civilian medical facilities on "medical probation." There, the federal share of Medicaid would pay half their costs.

SB 278 would apply to only about 120 prisoners. It is, however, a good example of the sort of small but significant money-saving bill that legislators should be rushing to pass.

SB 278's medical probation is no "get out of jail free" card. The CDC director would have to deem the prisoner "no longer a threat to society." The law could be applied only to those who are "permanently unable to move without assistance" or "permanently ventilator-dependent" or who have less than six months to live.

Some California prison officials argue that releasing inmates like Martinez wouldn't reduce the cost of caring for them. But even disregarding the shift to Medicaid, private care would be more efficient. The prison officials' real problem is that they might have to cut jobs.

The Ducheny bill could come up for a full Senate vote as early as next week. It is only a tiny step toward addressing the larger problem of California's graying prison population, which is driving up prison medical costs.

Legislators should consider bolder reforms such as reducing the number of parolees the state sends back to prison for minor, nonviolent infractions. About 71% of parolees in California end up back in prison within 18 months, often for crimes as minor as stealing an avocado or skipping an appointment. Until lawmakers get more nerve, it will be a considerable challenge to win the support of Gov. Gray Davis, who has vetoed legislation similar to Ducheny's.

Passing the Ducheny bill and moving Martinez from a high-security prison hospital to a public nursing home would not be sanctioning his vile crime. Rather it would help state leaders free up resources to fight crime where it is imminent, tracking the next rapist instead of endlessly turning Steven Martinez to prevent bedsores.

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