The reasoning seemed disarmingly simple: In a time of fiscal crisis and over-crowded prisons, why should California spend hundreds of millions of dollars retaining prisoners so sick, aged, paralyzed or otherwise infirm that they are no longer a threat to the public?
And so the Legislature passed a bill to permit medical paroles as both a humanitarian gesture and a way to save money for the state.
But theory has collided with the reality that prosecutors will fight vigorously to keep even incapacitated prisoners behind bars, that the parole board can be a highly skeptical body and that some prisoners committed heinously brutal acts before they fell victim to the medical problems that rendered them “safe.”
Last week, the first prisoner to seek a medical parole was quickly and profoundly rejected by the board: Steven Martinez, now 42, convicted of kidnapping, beating and raping a San Diego woman in 1998. A repeat violent offender, he was sentenced to 150 years.
A knife attack in prison in 2001 severed Martinez’s spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic. His medical expenses cost the state more than $600,000 a year. When he was in a medical facility outside the prison, the cost of round-the-clock guards exceeded $800,000 a year.
His family — his father is a retired firefighter, his mother a former business executive — is ready to take him home and provide care.
But San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis wants Martinez to remain in prison, although she said she does not disagree with the law and might support other prisoners seeking release.
The parole board, without allowing Martinez to attend the hearing, agreed that he is still a threat. If paroled, the board said, he could possibly use his vocal cords, which are not paralyzed, to order crimes, maybe attacks on state employees.
“In the end, fear won out over reason,” said Ken Karan, a Carlsbad attorney who represents Martinez. “It makes no sense to pay guards and build prisons to house prisoners in Mr. Martinez’s condition.”
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the bill’s sponsor, said he is worried that the Martinez decision indicates that the state parole board may attempt to scuttle the medical release program.
“We may need to revisit the legislation because they may not let anyone out,” he said.
Leno said the timing of the parole board’s rejection of Martinez, the same week the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to release 33,000 prisoners, is particularly galling. “If we can’t start with a quadriplegic, where can we begin?” he said.
Karan said he may file a request in court to have the board’s decision overturned as a violation of the new law’s rule that such decisions must past a “reasonableness” test.
Before the new law, Karan had twice unsuccessfully sought a “compassionate” parole for Martinez. He also filed a claim that intentionally shoddy care at Chino State Prison led to Martinez developing a massive bedsore; the claim was reportedly settled for $750,000.
The medical staff that cares for Martinez at Corcoran State Prison signed a petition opposing his parole, noting verbal abuse and threats he made toward them. Karan disputes any assertion that Martinez would seek to harm anyone and said that, unlike many prisoners, he had no gang affiliations.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Sachs, who appeared before the parole board, noted that an appeals court in 2010, rejecting Karan’s bid to overturn an earlier rejection, found the threats made by Martinez to be cause for keeping him behind bars.
The court called Martinez “an evil, angry, violent person.”
Although the cost of incarceration is an issue, Sachs said in an interview, “the overriding factor for our office is public safety, and Mr. Martinez is still a threat.”
Leno said he fears many prosecutors will oppose medical paroles “out of vengeance” toward the prisoners. “When we are unable to fund education and healthcare,” he said, “how much vengeance can we afford?”
Under the law, no lifers or death row inmates are eligible. Once it was signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, prison and medical officials quickly developed a list of candidates who met the standard to be considered medical paroles, which is that they are unable to meet their basic needs by themselves.
To parole the first group could save a minimum of $10 million a year, officials said. Some are in comas, in persistent vegetative states or dependent on ventilators.
Although many would still be eligible for state medical support, the costs could be split with the federal government. Also, the cost of providing round-the-clock guards — which exceeds the cost of the medical care — would be eliminated.
The next parole board hearing to consider a medical parole request is June 15: Craig Lemke, 48, serving a 68-year sentence for a 2007 armed-robbery, home invasion of an elderly couple in Lakeport, Calif. His medical condition cannot be disclosed beforehand because of federal privacy laws involving medical records, officials said.
His parole application is opposed by the Lake County district attorney.