Debra J. Saunders

In 1992, after he stopped wearing clothes to his UC Berkeley classes, Andrew Martinez was something of a walking only-in-Bezerkeley joke as the campus' own Naked Guy. But his life was no laughing matter.

Around 1997, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 2003, he was arrested for assaulting a staff member at a halfway house where he was a resident. He spent the next two-and-a-half years in Santa Clara County jail, its acute psychiatric unit, Napa State Hospital, and Atascadero State Hospital -- until at age 33, he killed himself by suffocating himself with a plastic bag in a jail cell on May 18, 2006.

Last week, Santa Clara County announced that it settled a wrongful death lawsuit and would pay $1 million to his mother, Esther Krenn. The county also agreed to notify families when inmates try to kill themselves or have a breakdown, which the county's lead Deputy County Counsel John Winchester told The Chronicle's Henry K. Lee it already had been doing informally.

On Tuesday, California voters rejected five budget measures on the special election ballot. Yet this settlement demonstrates how impossible it is to expect state and local governments to deliver leaner, smarter services. The incentives in government reward spending, not saving.

To start, $1 million seemed an awfully large sum to award a mother for a son with little to no earning power. Granted, the system fails whenever a mentally ill person kills himself in jail. But if you agree with Krenn's complaint that county staff "were deliberately indifferent" to Martinez's safety, violated his civil rights and wrongfully caused his death, it's still hard to understand what value there is for mentally-ill inmates in seeing $1 million go to Krenn's and attorney Geri Lynn Green's bank accounts.

"The value is the idea of the value of a schizophrenic's life. There are 18 million people in this country who suffer" from serious mental illness, Green told me. "They can work. They can become productive members of society. They can become taxpayers."

Sorry, but Martinez didn't even last in a halfway house. Winchester told me that the county settled because, "The cost to pursue the case through trial may have exceeded the county's insurance deductible" of $500,000. The insurance covered the other $500,000.

In her suit, Krenn had named the county, various local agencies and 11 staffers in their individual and official capacities -- which meant huge legal bills for the county. And you never know if a kooky jury might award an even larger bonanza to the Naked Guy's mom.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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