SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown has begun aggressively challenging federal court oversight of California’s prison system by highlighting what he says is a costly conflict of interest: The private law firms representing inmates and the judges’ own hand-picked authorities benefit financially by keeping the cases alive.
How much are they making?
A tally by The Associated Press, compiled from three state agencies, shows California taxpayers have spent $182 million for inmates’ attorneys and court-appointed authorities over the past 15 years. The payments cover a dozen lawsuits filed over the treatment of state prisoners, parolees and incarcerated juveniles, some of which have been settled.
The total exceeds $200 million when the state’s own legal costs are added.
While the amounts are a blip on California’s budget, they provide a continuous income stream for the private attorneys and experts involved in the ongoing litigation. And that is the point Brown is trying to make.
The AP sought the tally after the Democratic governor began using court filings and public appearances to call for an end to two major lawsuits that have forced the state to spend billions of dollars improving its medical and mental health care for prison inmates. Brown says the complaints are expensive, frivolous and motivated by attorneys’ own financial interest.
“They don’t want to go away,” he said last month, standing behind a stack of court documents. “I mean, the name of the game here is, ‘Come to Sacramento and get your little piece of the pie.'”
Brown says that, thanks to recent overhauls, California now offers inmates the best medical and mental health care of any prison system in the nation.
Inmates’ lawyers and the court-appointed authorities overseeing inmate medical and mental health say the system, with more than 132,000 inmates, remains crowded and still has problems with suicides and mentally ill prisoners who deserve better care. They say they are not motivated by profit, but by a desire to protect prisoners’ constitutional right to be free from cruel treatment.
“It’s ridiculous for the governor to merely characterize these cases as being about money, when in fact these cases have been the only impetus in the last 20 years for reducing the prison population and improving conditions,” said Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which has won several major cases against the state.
The nonprofit, which has taken the lead in suing the state over inmate health care, and other legal firms have been paid $8.3 million in that case.
Many of the lawsuits are continuing despite the billions of dollars spent to improve treatment for the state’s felons and a massive realignment of the state’s penal system. The realignment has transferred responsibility for incarcerating tens of thousands of convicts from the state to the counties to reduce prison crowding.
Brown says inmate care now exceeds constitutional standards. He argues that what he called “the prison lobby” — lawyers and the court-appointed special master overseeing penitentiary improvements — is perpetuating the legal action to make money.
“We’ve got hundreds of lawyers wandering around the prisons looking for problems,” Brown said.
The state has paid nearly $83 million to private law firms and the court-appointed authorities involved in the two major lawsuits that have forced the state to reduce its prison population and improve inmate medical and mental health treatment, according to the figures provided at the AP’s request. The costs were provided by the corrections department, the state Department of Justice and the prison medical receiver’s office and compiled by the AP.
In his budget address last month, Brown said the money that would be saved by ending court oversight in the two major mental health and health care cases could be spent instead on inmate education, substance abuse treatment and other rehabilitation programs, as well as to supervise convicts once they leave prison.
The governor has taken particular aim at the court-appointed monitor overseeing inmate mental health care, Matthew Lopes.
The state has paid the special masters in that case and the prison experts they have hired more than $48 million since 1997, the earliest year for which reliable records can be found, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The beneficiaries of those payments include Lopes, who has been the special master for more than five years, and his Rhode Island law firm, Pannone Lopes and Devereaux LLC. The previous special master, Joseph Keating, left in 2007.
In a court filing last month, the governor’s administration said Lopes’ ever-expanding standards for care have no relation to the real world and do not acknowledge the steps the state has taken to improve treatment.
“Perhaps the reason is because there is no incentive for the special master to be objective in this case,” the administration said in disputing Lopes’ conclusion that the state still provides substandard mental health care. “Further monitoring ensures that this revenue stream will continue.”
Lopes said he could not comment because the matter is part of the ongoing legal dispute.
“There’s no evidence that backs that up, other than saying, ‘Oh, he got all that money’ and they don’t like his reports,” said Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing the welfare of mentally ill inmates.
Bien’s San Francisco law firm, Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld, is among the firms that have been paid $19 million by the state in the inmate mental health lawsuit.
He said Brown and the state would be better off complying with a prison population cap supported by the U.S. Supreme Court and by working with Lopes to reduce inmate suicides and improve mental health treatment.
The state never objected to the special master’s prior reports, Bien said, nor to his invoices for payment. The easiest way for the state to end the lawsuits is to improve the treatment of inmates to the level set by the courts, he said.
Later Monday, the inmates’ attorneys planned to file their formal response to Brown’s criticism of Lopes’ recent report.
Bien and other inmates’ attorneys are paid by taxpayers only if they can prove a federal or constitutional violation, and by law are then paid at an hourly rate hundreds of dollars below what they would usually charge. They also have to pay out of pocket for the expert witnesses they hire to counter the state’s experts.
“This is really offensive to say that I’m doing this for the money,” Bien said. “I didn’t do it to get rich.”
By DON THOMPSON