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Inmate may be first to be set free under 'medical parole'

A man convicted of home invasion and serving 68 years is set to be released from prison under a law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allowing those deemed too disabled to no longer pose a threat to safety to be let out of prison.

June 16, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Craig Lemke, serving 68 years for a Lake County robbery, could be granted medical parole under a law that took effect this year.
Craig Lemke, serving 68 years for a Lake County robbery, could be granted… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Sacramento -- A Northern California man serving 68 years for a home invasion robbery is likely to be the first inmate released from state prison on "medical parole" under a controversial law passed last year meant to save the corrections department millions of dollars in treating and guarding medically incapacitated inmates.

On Wednesday, the Board of Parole Hearings granted an application from Craig Lemke, 48, who in 2006 broke into an elderly couple's home, bound them with duct tape and robbed them of money, jewelry and firearms.

Under the law, inmates are eligible for medical parole only if they're so disabled — paralyzed, in comas, hooked up to ventilators — that they no longer pose a credible threat to public safety. Officials would not provide details of Lemke's medical condition, citing health privacy laws.

Lemke is the second inmate to have a medical parole hearing under the law signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September. Last month the board denied the first request, from a convicted rapist paralyzed in an assault by other inmates, saying he remained a threat because he can still speak.

A spokeswoman for the federal receiver in charge of inmate healthcare said the state will save between $750,000 and $800,000 per year in security costs alone if Lemke is paroled. That's what it costs to post guards around the clock on inmates who are so sick they require care in hospitals outside of prison walls.

If prisoners are paroled, the medical costs would shift to their families, if they can afford to pay, or to other government programs if they cannot. The expense of guarding the patients would be eliminated.

Should a parolee's medical condition improve, the law requires that he be sent back to prison to finish his sentence.

Last March, authorities had identified 25 "permanently medically incapacitated" inmates being treated at outside hospitals who were candidates for parole. The receiver's offices predicted Californians would pay more than $50 million to treat them this year, between $19 million and $21 million of that for guards' salaries, benefits and overtime.

About half of those inmates have since been moved back into prison, receiver spokeswoman Nancy Kincaid said on Wednesday. The cost of treating patients at outside medical facilities is also falling, she said, because of a new contract with the hospitals.

The cost of providing security on the outside — typically two guards and one supervisor per inmate — has not changed, Kincaid said.

In addition to medical parole candidates in hospitals, there could be thousands of inmates inside prison sick enough to qualify, Kincaid said. The question is whether their sentences will disqualify them. Nobody sentenced to death, or serving life without the possibility of parole, is eligible.

The parole board still has 120 days to finalize their decision on Lemke. The board will hear two more cases on Thursday, and two next Friday.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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