The lawsuit dates to 1994 and resulted in a court-approved plan in 2001 to accommodate the needs of disabled inmates in state prisons. Tuesday's ruling applies to inmates who were sentenced to prison for felonies but are now in county jail for drug treatment, or were jailed after being arrested or resentenced for violating their state parole.
Despite assigning those inmates to county custody, the state remains responsible for maintaining equal access to educational and treatment programs and to "the fundamentals of life, such as sustenance, the use of toilet and bathing facilities, and elementary mobility and communication," Judge Stephen Reinhardt said in the 3-0 ruling.
The ruling is important because "the state is contracting out more and more" of its prisoners to local agencies, said Michael Bien, a lawyer for the inmates.
He said the court action was not aimed at requiring the state to provide wheelchairs, sign-language interpreters and other assistance to disabled jail inmates, but instead at ordering state prison and parole officials to notify counties about the inmates and their needs.
A recurring motif throughout this crisis has been the relegation of state responsibility to state facilities. The best example of this is the overcrowding crisis, which according to Governor Schwarzenegger's plan would be remedied, in part, by reclassifying offenses so that inmates would be incarcerated in county, rather than state, facilities. This modest success for the plaintiffs, requiring state actors to be in contact with county facilities, may be one of the first examples of cooperation. Since only joint action will eventually lead to decrowding, it is a step in the right direction.