Ethical violations could derail governor’s push to end court oversight of inmate mental care

Listen to story

Download this story 0.0MB

A federal judge accused California of ethical violations at a hearing Wednesday on whether to end court oversight of psychiatric care in state prisons.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said attorneys for the state may have committed “a profound ethical violation” when they interviewed mentally ill inmates without telling their attorneys.

Karlton told Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney: “The weight to be given those affidavits has been seriously undermined.”

McKinney insisted attorneys violated no rules when they interviewed inmates and staff at 10 prisons in the days before the hearing.

“The report was fair and balanced.” he said.

Karlton said he may have to strike the state’s expert testimony and dismiss its motion to end a lawsuit that’s led to more than a decade of federal oversight.

The 1990 case—Coleman v. Brown—found the entire mental health system in California prisons “unconstitutional.” As part of a settlement , the court  appointed a special master to advise the state on how to fix it and to monitor its compliance. 

California spends $400 million a year on psychiatric care for inmates. Over the last decade, it’s doled out $1.4 billion to construct psychiatric facilities.

In January, the Brown administration filed a motion to end the court’s control, asserting that  California’s 33,000 mentally ill prisoners now get “gold-plated care."

But Wednesday’s hearing on the motion began and ended with the judge questioning what he should do in circumstances he called, “quite extraordinary.”

Karlton said he would hold normally a hearing to resolve questions about the credibility of testimony, but the state’s motion was filed under a federal statute that forces the judge to rule by April 7th.

“There’s no time for a hearing,” Karlton said.

If the judge dismisses the motion, California can file again in a year.