The California Senate unanimously approved a bill on Thursday that would allow more terminally ill inmates to be released from state prisons. The bill now moves on to the Assembly for final approval.
It would loosen the current requirement, which some find so stringent that it keeps sick inmates behind bars. They argue that doing so wastes resources by filling up unnecessary prison beds with people who, due to their conditions, require the most expensive and intensive medical treatment.
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According to the nonprofit advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), 91% of California inmates who were waiting for compassionate release between January 2015 and April 2021 tragically passed away in prison. However, only 53 inmates were granted compassionate release during that time.
According to their most recent report, “unfortunately, due to flaws in the current system, too few are being released and far too many are dying before the process is completed.”
The federal prison system’s new standard would allow the release of inmates who are permanently medically incapacitated or who have a terminal illness “with an end-of-life trajectory.”
It would establish a presumption that an eligible inmate should be freed, barring any judge-determined risk to public safety.
Existing legislation, on the other hand, specifies that inmates must either be terminally ill or permanently medically handicapped. The disease now has a guaranteed 12-month death span. Moreover, a prisoner is considered permanently incapacitated if he or she needs constant medical attention.
The law would make offenders eligible if they cannot accomplish activities of daily living regardless of whether or not they get 24-hour care. If they suffer dementia or another form of cognitive disability, they could be set free as well.
According to FAMM’s data, the highest ranking prison official in California currently rejects 25% of all applications despite having to sign off on them. This person is the prisons department secretary. Instead of higher-ups making the decision to propose an inmate’s release, the bill would place that responsibility on lower-level staff if the inmate meets the new criteria.
“California’s existing policy is overly restricted, and the procedure is cumbersome and duplicated, unnecessarily saddling the state with exorbitant medical costs,” Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting said after the Senate approved his bill. One could argue, “We can do better.”
A counter argument was presented by the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, which argued that “drastic modifications in what is a well-crafted document” were unnecessary. Additionally, the California District Attorneys Association has stated that “currently provision for seriously ill inmates to be paroled or resentenced.”
A statement by FAMM’s general counsel, Mary Price, countered this argument by saying, “the state cannot afford to waste its limited resources incarcerating seriously and terminally ill people who represent no threat to public safety.”
A year ago, the Assembly passed a similar version of the bill by a 45-24 margin, with members of both parties opposed or abstaining.
Officials in California tightened its rules last year, limiting medical parole to offenders who are so severely ill that they are dependent on ventilators to breathe and therefore pose no threat to the public due to their limited mobility. According to them, a change in federal regulations left them with no other option.
A 2018 analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that virtually all states have procedures in place for releasing offenders with critical medical issues, but these procedures are rarely used. The Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, shared same concerns about limited eligibility and application hurdles.