U.S. Supreme Court Won't Hear California Plea to Let It Slough off Disabled Prisoners on County Jails

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

California does not do a great job of handling disabled inmates in its prison system. It halted admissions to its new facility for chronically ill and disabled inmates in Stockton because of “systemic and prison-wide failures.”

The state also doesn’t do too well at sloughing off its disabled prisoners on county jails.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear California’s appeal of a 2012 U.S. District Court ruling that told prison officials they retained responsibility for the care of disabled inmates even when they end up in county jails as part of the state’s program to reduce prison overcrowding. The high court dismissed the appeal without comment.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled two years ago that the 3-year-old realignment plan did not absolve the state from monitoring and protecting its former inmates who were now sent to county jails for parole violations instead of being returned to prison. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision that the state was obligated to track the 2,000 or so disabled inmates in its custody and inform counties when they are headed their way.

Some of the inmates are in wheelchairs. Others need canes, sign-language interpreters, accessible beds and toilets. State officials said they were no longer responsible, but the courts said the Americans With Disabilities Act requiring “reasonable accommodations” still applied to them. The state told the Judge Wilken it would comply with her order during the appeal process.

Low-level felons were shifted to county jails and county probation systems as part of the state's realignment three years ago to meet federal court orders that it reduce the prison population. The federal government has been in charge of California prison healthcare since 2005 and overcrowding since 2009. The takeover followed years of prison horror stories, frequent inmate deaths, severe overcrowding, deficient health care, defiant mismanagement and, in the end, lawsuits.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris argued that it was a states rights issue and the federal government had no business telling it how to delegate powers to local governments. The state also argued that the ruling meant it would be liable for any screw-ups by the county in handling the disabled inmates.

The court didn’t order the state not to redirect the disable inmates to the county or provide services and accommodations to them in jail. It pretty much just said the state should give the county a heads up about the condition of who was about to show up in their custody after the state revoked their parole.      

Michael Bien, an attorney representing parolees, told the Associated Press, “We have not asked, nor has the court ordered, anyone to retrofit a county jail to comply with the court order. This is the same kind of 'the sky is falling' argument that the state has been raising again and again.”

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

High Court Won't Hear California's Prison Appeal (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear California Prison Overcrowding Case (by Jennifer Chaussee, Reuters)

Supreme Court Leaves California in Charge of Disabled Inmates (by David Savage, Los Angeles Times)

Brown v. Armstrong (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) (pdf)

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