Politics

California Considers First Inmate For Medical Parole

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(credit: Kevin Horan/Getty Images)

(credit: Kevin Horan/Getty Images)

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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Steven Martinez is a repeat violent offender who is 12 years into a 157 years-to-life prison sentence for kidnapping, beating and raping a woman after running her down with his vehicle as she left a San Diego dance club.

A stabbing behind bars left him a quadriplegic, but it’s that act that may lead to the 42-year-old inmate’s early release.

Martinez could become the first California inmate granted medical parole under a law that took effect this year when his release is considered on Tuesday at Corcoran State Prison. The program is intended to parole inmates who are medically incapacitated, saving the state millions of dollars a year.

As the bill was being debated in the Legislature last year, critics worried that it was initially written so broadly that it could free inmates who remain a public safety threat or who are not totally incapacitated.

Yet fewer inmates than originally anticipated are expected to qualify under the law, lowering the possible savings as the state struggles to close a $10 billion budget deficit.

Moreover, public safety concerns could derail medical parole for some inmates, including Martinez.

Martinez was left permanently paralyzed from the neck down after his spine was severed in a knife fight with two fellow inmates at Centinela State Prison 10 years ago. His medical care alone costs the state about $625,000 a year, according to court documents.

But the Board of Parole Hearings twice has rejected Martinez’s pleas for compassionate release, in 2008 and in September 2010, after deciding that he is dangerous even though he can’t move.

The separate compassionate release law lets the state free inmates who are permanently incapacitated or are terminally ill with less than six months to live.

The board concluded in September that Martinez “remains a violent person capable of using others to carry out his threats.” It noted that Martinez repeatedly threatened prison nurses with harm even after he was paralyzed.

Martinez’s attorney, Ken Karan of Carlsbad, said his client has at times been neglected in prison. He once suffered a severe pressure sore that required six months of treatment at an outside hospital. Martinez won $750,000 in damages from the department for the poor care, he said.

“He can breathe on his own and he can talk. That’s it,” Karan said. “It’s just not reasonable to suggest he is a likely candidate to go out and commit a crime through somebody else.”

Richard Sachs, a supervising deputy district attorney in San Diego County, intends to oppose Martinez’s release before two parole board commissioners at Corcoran, which is in the southern San Joaquin Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield.

“The law is useful for saving money for the state, but it doesn’t fit this particular situation because he’s still very angry and very violent,” Sachs said.

The balance between savings and safety is at the crux of the debate over the law proposed last year by J. Clark Kelso, the receiver appointed by the federal courts to oversee inmate medical care.

“We still have a $10 billion hole in our budget. Schools are still at risk of closing days, if not weeks, early. We’ve slashed higher education. We’ve devastated our social safety net. We don’t have tens of millions to waste on the Department of Corrections,” said State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who carried the bill.

Thirty-two other states and the District of Columbia have similar medical parole programs, according to Leno’s office.

About half of paroled inmates’ medical costs could be paid by the federal government through Medicaid, while older inmates could qualify for Medicare. The state also would avoid the cost of paying to guard paralyzed or comatose inmates.

The state will still bear some cost for their care, and the law promises the state won’t burden counties or hospitals with whatever costs remain.

If their health improves, they would be returned to prison. The law excludes those facing the death penalty or life without parole.

Leno is frustrated that prison doctors have identified just 40 inmates who meet the criteria. Inmates must have been permanently incapacitated while in prison, meaning they require 24-hour care and cannot perform activities of basic daily living. Those inmates must be released if the Board of Parole Hearings determines they would not reasonably pose a threat to public safety.

Paroling all 40 inmates would save the state less than $5 million annually in outside medical costs, plus about another $5 million to guard the inmates around the clock, said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the receiver’s office.

Leno and former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had estimated the law could save California $200 million annually when fully implemented.

They based their projections on a state auditor’s report a year ago that identified 1,175 inmates who together accounted for nearly 40 percent of the prison system’s outside medical costs, or $185 million annually. The inmates are less than 1 percent of the state’s prison population but account for a disproportionate share of the cost.

Yet the number who qualify for medical parole is much smaller because the criteria were written so narrowly.

The receiver’s office projects that only 50 of the state’s 162,124 inmates might qualify in the first year, Kincaid said.

More inmates are expected to qualify as they age, their conditions worsen or they are identified by prison doctors, Kincaid said. But she said many others, like Martinez, might have to fight the perception that they remain a danger to society.

Two more medical parole hearings are set for June 24 at San Quentin State Prison. John Michael Diaz, 61, is serving a 13-year sentence from Merced County for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under age 14 and unlawful sex with a minor. Edward Ortiz, 58, is serving a 21-year sentence for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under age 14, and 15 years for molesting a child under age 10, both from Sonoma County.

Three more inmates are set for hearings at other prisons next month. They are Juan Garcia Sandoval, 78, serving a 27-year sentence for a Merced County murder; Craig Alvin Lemke, 48, serving 68 years for a Lake County robbery; and John Joseph Swesey, 72, serving 24 years from San Luis Obispo County for burglary, making terrorist threats and possessing a firearm as a felon.

Between July 2008 and March 2011, the first six inmates being considered for medical parole cost taxpayers more than $6.4 million for medical care at outside facilities, and more than $3.7 million in additional expenses for guarding them at those facilities, Kincaid said.

Guarding inmates at the outside facilities can require security from two prison guard, at an additional cost of $750,000 a year for each inmate. Prison guards “are getting overtime to stand at the bedside 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people who can’t move. That’s just a waste of precious money,” Leno said.

Leno argued that even potentially dangerous inmates such as Martinez should qualify for medical parole because officials can set standards for their conduct. Martinez would be paroled to an acute care facility where he would receive 24-hour care by medical providers who could report any threats, Leno said.

“You can make it a condition of parole: `You cannot use the phone,”‘ Leno said. “He knows he’s going back to prison if he breaks his parole. So this was written very narrowly. The concern was it may not get implemented … and we may not realize the savings.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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