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California Passes Buck on Prisoner Health

Today’s Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata, which will require California to release as many as 46,000 of its inmates, may help reduce health care costs in the state, but much of that burden could be forced onto federal taxpayers.

It’s true that the conditions of California’s prison system are appalling. There aren’t enough guards to give prisoners sufficient supervision, there isn’t enough space to prevent overcrowding, and the health care system for the inmates is overstretched.

To address this, California has already instituted a program to release prisoners who are incapacitated. Even the most violent offenders—rapists, murderers, gang members—can be considered for parole if they are paralyzed or otherwise unable to perform basic daily tasks. And now the Supreme Court has ordered California to let out tens of thousands of other inmates, and some state officials are arguing that the sickest ones should be the ones chosen for release.

Reducing the number of prisoners “would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project. This is especially true if the ones who are released have health problems.

Discharging sick and disabled prisoners might let California taxpayers off the hook for health care. But it’s likely that many of them will qualify for Medicaid benefits, leaving the federal government to pick up the tab.

This is wrong. California is the one to blame for its own crumbling prison system, which could have been fixed if the state actually invested in its facilities. Now California will have to deal with the law enforcement costs of prematurely as many as 46,000 potentially dangerous convicts. Unfortunately, the federal government will now be saddled with the costs of providing health care and social services to many of them as well.


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