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Editorial

Too costly for prison

Releasing aged or infirm inmates is a responsible way to save money and reduce overcrowding.

May 31, 2011
  • Steven Martinez is serving 150 years for rape. A prison attack has left him a quadriplegic. A prosecutor argues that verbal threats made by Martinez are cause for leaving him behind bars.
Steven Martinez is serving 150 years for rape. A prison attack has left him… (Associated Press )

Steven Martinez was sentenced to 157 years in prison after abducting, beating and raping a San Diego woman in 1998. Three years later, during a prison knife attack, he was stabbed in the neck, his spinal cord was severed and he was left a quadriplegic.

Though he cannot eat, bathe himself or move his arms or legs, Martinez remains an inmate in the state prison system, and his medical treatment costs taxpayers about $600,000 a year. He has also had to spend long periods in an outside medical facility, which costs the state an additional $800,000 a year for round-the-clock guards.

Martinez is just one of dozens of sick, aged, infirm and even comatose inmates who authorities say pose no further threat to the public, yet who together cost state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually because of their medical treatment and security requirements. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling such expenditures a waste, signed a "medical parole" bill into law under which inmates who are deemed "permanently medically incapacitated" may be released and their medical costs shifted to themselves or their families. If for some unanticipated reason an inmate's condition were to improve, he or she could be sent back to prison.

It is a reasonable law. But last week, when Martinez became the first inmate to come before the parole board under its provisions, his release was strongly opposed by the San Diego district attorney, and the board ultimately voted to keep him behind bars.

It's understandable that there's resistance to the new program. Prison serves many purposes in the view of the public. One, of course, is to keep society safe. But another is punishment. Just because Martinez can't commit further crimes (assuming he can't, and the D.A.'s office is not entirely conceding that point), it still seems wrong to many people to free him before his term is up. "I don't think this guy has the right to see another sunset, to sit in front of a TV, to be with his family or to be able to enjoy anything," Rick Bulette, the San Diego police officer who arrested him, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He's a monster."

No one is eager to release brutal criminals. But given California's extraordinary budget crisis and last week's U.S. Supreme Court order that the state reduce its inmate population by at least 33,000 (because the current overcrowding constitutes cruel and unusual punishment), it defies common sense to continue holding inmates who are permanently incapacitated. Officials say they can save more than $10 million a year by releasing these prisoners (although some would no doubt end up on public assistance somewhere else).

Releasing a prisoner who no longer poses a threat doesn't mean that he has been forgiven or that the state is no longer repulsed by his crimes. It reflects the reality that California's prisons must reduce overcrowding and cut costs in a manner that is safe and sensible.

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