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Guilty of neglect

Wednesday’s court motion by a federal receiver demanding $8 billion to upgrade healthcare in the state’s prisons is not some last-minute surprise. The state was on notice for its prison crisis even before 2006, when it lost control of its inmate medical system to a federal court, and at least since 2001, when a class-action suit alleged that treatment of prisoners was so poor that it violated the U.S. Constitution.

The Legislature supposedly was going to authorize bonds to begin the necessary payments, but it has failed so far this year to take that obvious and most fundamental step, and is two months past due on simply adopting a budget for the fiscal year already in progress. Receiver J. Clark Kelso was well within his rights to seek a contempt order against state officials for failing to turn over the money.

The state, with a $15-billion deficit, can’t afford it? That’s an old story, and California deserves little sympathy. Even when the state was flush with cash, voters and elected leaders were unwilling to provide a constitutional standard of prison medical, dental and mental health care. It was pay now or pay later. We chose later, and later is today. Costs are higher, state money is scarcer, but the 8th Amendment stricture against cruel and unusual punishment applies even when it may be inconvenient.

As lawmakers strut and fret over the budget, Republicans who blocked approval of bonds and who now are intent on slashing programs should recall that cuts very often turn into higher future expenses. It’s too bad for foster children, the elderly and the poor that the Constitution does not protect them as it does inmates, but the bills for neglecting those in need will arrive, even without a federal court order.

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Voters, too, should remember that all their tough-on-crime initiatives have a very real price. Californians must recognize that more arrests means more inmates, which translates into more prisons and more guards. And choices: cuts from other programs, such as schools (but that would mean future Californians would have to bear the costs of a less well-educated populace), or higher taxes. Pay now or pay more later.

Meanwhile, Democrats and others who dismiss assertions that prison costs are higher because of illegal immigration should get real. The costs of crime and of housing criminals are in fact higher because of the illegal population. We can call for federal help, but Californians cannot ignore the prison crisis or pretend that they had no role in its making.


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