A federal judge said Wednesday that she will fine California $1,000 a day if state officials don't start providing swifter care for mentally ill inmates.
U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller said she is fed up with the treatment delays that have plagued the prison mental health system despite two decades of federal oversight.
She gave the state until May 15 to end a chronic backlog in sending inmates to state mental facilities. The $1,000-a-day fines for each inmate whose treatment is delayed would start accumulating May 16, but wouldn't be collected until she holds a hearing in November to decide if the state complied.
Mueller said that previous court rulings haven't worked. Three times in the last eight years, she said, state officials did a better job temporarily, only to relapse within a few years.
"This cycle must be broken," she wrote in Wednesday's order.
But the state's lawyers said fines could violate federal law since there is no sign that officials are deliberately ignoring inmates' wellbeing.
Corrections officials are evaluating the order and the state's options, said spokeswoman Vicky Waters.
Mueller's threat of fines comes nearly 22 years after her predecessor first ruled that California was providing inadequate mental health care to inmates, 20 years after the state's improvement plan was approved, and more than a decade after the state was ordered to "immediately" end the treatment delays.
Mueller said at a January hearing that she "is done, frankly, with poking and prodding" state officials and that her goal is "putting an end, once and for all, to unconstitutional delays."
"It's not 'You're bad and I want to punish you,'" said Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing mentally ill inmates. Her goal, he said, is to give the state "extra incentive to come into compliance with something that's already been a court order."
State officials said the backlogs are temporary, caused in part by storm damage last fall to the roof of a Salinas Valley State Prison treatment facility designed to hold 70 inmates. They said in court filings that they are making "concerted, good-faith efforts" that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Aside from repairing the Salinas Valley facility, the state plans to open a 70-bed mental health facility at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, while Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget includes money for another 100 mental health crisis beds.
"To impose sanctions on a system that provides mental health care to over 30,000 patients on the basis of perfection is unreasonable, and likely unconstitutional," the state's lawyers wrote before Mueller's order. "Defendants have not acted in bad faith or with deliberative indifference. To the contrary, Defendants are constantly working to address the inpatient bed need and have worked tirelessly to place inmates despite unexpected issues."
But Mueller said the state has enough space to provide inmates with proper care. Mueller said a permanent end to the delays is needed before she can end federal oversight.
"The court's patience in the face of waitlists that continue to exceed (court-approved) timelines is at an end," she wrote in March.