California outlines restrictions for mentally ill paroleers

SAN FRANCISCO — California officials on Thursday unveiled a plan that would greatly restrict the ability of parole agents to recommend parole for mentally ill and comatose inmates.

Ventilator patients who fail to show improvement in their health within a year would be denied parole in line with a law passed last year in a bipartisan effort that helped federal courts force the state to improve care for medical prisoners.

State corrections officials say the legislation is needed to meet federal court orders to reduce crowding in California’s prisons and save money.

In an order issued in June, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized that the Supreme Court decided to allow parole for some inmates who are comatose, mentally ill or sick, as long as conditions in the medical facility are satisfactory.

“We are hopeful that patient protections can be balanced with the safety of our prisons,” Rod Pacheco, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement on Thursday.

In May, the Supreme Court upheld the legislation, which does not apply to non-comatose patients. Justices found the law met the requirements of the U.S. Constitution by limiting parole to non-dangerous inmates who pose a threat to the public and can no longer be cured by medical treatment, and limiting parole for those inmates who pose a threat to their health because they have been denied care.

The highest court said it was considering a challenge by two inmates who were placed on ventilators in California prisons.

The new law would apply to all comatose inmates and to other patients who are undergoing treatment that experts say has little to do with bringing their condition under control. Patients still on ventilators could still receive medical parole, although the decision would be up to parole agents and would be subject to lengthy reviews.

Of the nearly 35,000 inmates who are on a long list of those eligible for medical parole, about 100 are receiving it, according to the department.

Prisoners considered medically parole eligible include those in isolation, those with complex diagnoses, those who are comatose and those who show no improvement for at least eight months.

The law will go into effect as California seeks to comply with new federal court-ordered reforms mandated by the appeals court, including eliminating one out of four beds at some hospitals and reducing the use of force against inmates.

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