A judge has levied more than $50 million in fines against California for failing to correct a chronic shortage of mental health providers in its state prisons, Governing reports. The fines, imposed by Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller, are part of a decades-long, federal class action lawsuit regarding the treatment of mentally ill California inmates. Mueller will decide in the coming weeks whether to hold the state in contempt and order the full payment of fines. Gov. Gavin Newsom has made overhauling the state’s mental health system a major focus of his second term, but his office declined to comment on the staffing deficits, citing ongoing litigation. Newsom is pushing for voter support to pass a $6.4 billion bond measure in March to add thousands of new behavioral health beds across the state.
Ernest Galvan, an attorney representing the inmate plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said expanding treatment options in the community is key for long-term success but that the state needs to meet people where they are now. California, under court order, reduced its prison population from about 136,000 to 92,000 over the past decade, but the percentage of people behind bars with mental illness continues to grow. “None of us should be happy with the idea that we need to staff up these prisons with mental health clinicians because these prisons are the worst kind of places to deliver mental health treatment,” said Galvan. “But that’s the unfortunate result of the last generation of mental health policymakers.” In the case, known as Coleman, a federal court ruled in 1995 that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was not providing adequate mental health care to prisoners. The court concluded that the department’s mental health staff were “stretched dangerously thin,” resulting in a decline in the quality of treatment and the number of inmates who were treated, as well as an alarming number of in-custody suicides.