Feds retain control of California's prison mental health

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge on Friday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's bid to regain state control of inmates' mental health care after 18 years of court oversight and billions of dollars spent to improve treatment.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento ruled that the state failed to prove that it is providing the level of care required by the U.S. Constitution for the state's more than 32,000 mentally ill inmates.

"This court finds that ongoing constitutional violations remain in this action and the prospective relief ordered by this court remains necessary to remedy those violations," the judge said in his 68-page decision.

The decision is a blow to the Democratic governor's attempts to end nearly two decades of expensive federal lawsuits that influence nearly every aspect of California's prison system. It also undermines Brown's efforts to lift a separate court order that otherwise will force the state to reduce its prison population by nearly 10,000 by year's end.

Brown has promised to appeal.

The judge and the attorneys for both sides acknowledged that the state has made significant improvements in its treatment of mentally ill inmates since the lawsuit was filed in 1991. That suit claimed the original care was so poor it violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, prompting federal supervision to be imposed four years later.

The state has spent more than $1 billion on new facilities and devotes $400 million a year to caring for the mentally ill, who account for about one in every four inmates in the state's 33 adult prisons. The administration argues it no longer is deliberately indifferent to the needs of mentally ill inmates.

Yet court-appointed experts reported that the prison system still has major problems. That includes a suicide rate that worsened last year to 24 per 100,000 inmates, far exceeding the national average of 16 suicides per 100,000 inmates in state prisons.

Despite the state's efforts to build more mental health facilities and hire more staff at higher salaries, attorneys representing inmates said much more needs to be done.