California inmate lawsuits cost taxpayers $200 million


Governor Jerry Brown last month lamented the endless stacks of legal documents filed by inmates' attorneys and the drain the lawsuits have on the state budget.

"We've got hundreds of lawyers wandering around the prisons looking for problems," Brown said on January 8.

The state now confirms inmate lawsuits have cost taxpayers about $180 million in legal fees and court appointees alone over 15 years, the bulk of it from two yet-to-be resolved cases involving whether the prison system's medical and healthcare services meet Constitutional standards.

The tab is closer to $200 million if you count the state's costs to defend itself.

The Brown Administration says this is a costly conflict of interest: law firms representing inmates and the people appointed by judges to fix the problems, like a special master and a federal receiver, benefit financially by keeping the cases going.

"If you make millions of dollars out of lawsuits, then obviously if you continue with the lawsuit, then you stand to make more money," said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections.

Inmate attorneys say they give the state of California an opportunity to address the issue before they file suit. They deny prisoner lawsuits are a moneymaker.

"Every person who works in this office is doing it because he believes prisoners are people and should be treated humanely, and that every single person in this office could make double or triple the amount they're making here by working in the private sector," said said Don Specter, the Prison Law Office.

"Absolutely frivolous," said state Senator Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber).

Nielsen headed the California Board of Prison Terms for a decade and was personally named in numerous inmate lawsuits. He says it's time to end what he calls abuses.

"We need to pass some legislation to curb some the things inmates can sue over," said Nielsen. "It's absolute nonsense."

The state is trying to end federal control of the prison mental health system. But inmate attorneys say it's not up to Constitutional standards yet.

In a court filing last month, Governor Brown said there's no incentive for the special master to be objective in the mental health case because further monitoring ensures more money.

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