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Judge locks in deadline for California prisons to start mental health treatment program

The pilot program must start before September, with a status report to follow mid-next year.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge on Monday ordered the state of California to implement a pilot program for inmates suffering from personality disorders.

It's the latest move by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller in a sprawling class action over the number of mental health professionals in California prisons. The seven-page order stems from a hearing last month where the judge discussed a joint statement about implementing a pilot program at two facilities — San Quentin State Prison and Valley State Prison — by Aug. 31.

Mueller confirmed that deadline in her order. She also asked the state to produce a status report detailing personality disorder treatment programs at 17 other prisons by June 16, 2025, about two months after the completion of the pilot program — the amount of time a doctor has said would be needed to evaluate it.

“The court is contemplating making the schedule more clear,” Mueller said at the April 26 hearing, presaging Monday’s order.

The pilot program has its beginnings in a September 2021 order. At that time, a judge ordered the state to determine if the class faced an unmet need for inpatient care. In November 2023, a judge ordered both sides to meet with a special master — a third party acting as an arm of the court — and create a pilot program in three months, then implement it within the following six months, hence the autumn deadline for implementation.

While California agreed to implement the program, it wouldn't concede that the Eighth Amendment required it to do so, state attorney Paul Mello explained during last month's hearing. The amendment prohibits excessive bail and fines as well as cruel and unusual punishment.

The state based that argument, Mueller wrote Monday, on her September 2021 order, which gave no finding on whether people with personality disorders faced a risk of harm or that treatment for those disorders was required.

The plaintiffs in Coleman v. Newsom argue that treating personality disorders is a requirement and have expressed concern about the state’s reticence over meeting deadlines, Mueller wrote.

Amar Mehta, deputy director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s statewide mental health program, has said it would take eight months to complete one cycle of the program.

“It’s an issue I’m glad to see moving forward in a meaningful way,” attorney Lisa Ells, who represents the Coleman class, said last month.

Two other subjects discussed during the hearing, issues of data remediation and suicide prevention, weren’t addressed in Mueller’s Monday order.

Despite applauding the efforts of stakeholders to implement the plan, Mueller in her order pointed to a footnote written by state attorneys she called “extremely disappointing.”

That footnote in an April filing stated that the special master appeared to have disregarded several requests to reduce the number of people needed to attend meetings and court hearings. Sixteen staff members attended an early April hearing.

Mueller in April chastised Mello for the footnote, rebuffing him when he asked how to raise his concerns. Noting the issue wasn’t above his pay grade, Mueller said she wasn’t going to give him legal advice.

“Given the potential for constructive collaboration and agreement represented by this effort, the improper arguments of defense counsel in their portion of the joint statement are extremely disappointing and far below the high level of dignity and professionalism called for by this important long-running case,” Mueller wrote.

Mueller’s order on the personality disorder pilot program came about two months after she issued a tentative ruling sanctioning the state $94 million for failing to meet staffing requirements. According to Mueller, the state knew it faced hefty fines and still failed to achieve its obligations.

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