CA: Soaring cost of new death row demands action

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CA: Soaring cost of new death row demands action

Post  Jennie on Wed Jun 25, 2008 12:22 pm


Soaring cost of new death row demands action

CALIFORNIA LAWMAKERS face a dilemma when it comes to deciding whether to move forward with the costly plan to build a new death row at San Quentin State Prison.

Recent estimates show the cost of building a 768-cell complex for the state's condemned inmates has grown to $395 million, a nearly 10-% increase in only a year.

Marin Assemblyman Jared Huffman calls the estimate, prepared by a state auditor, a "bombshell."

He's right.

But convincing his colleagues to do something about it is going to test his legislative mettle.

At this point, with millions already invested in the plan, lawmakers likely are more inclined to quietly let the project proceed and its cost rise.

There is little political benefit for most lawmakers to take a hard look at the proposal. There is no debate that the state needs a larger and modern death row that's safer for both inmates and the men and women who have the important duty to keep the facility secure.

But at what point do lawmakers ask themselves whether it still makes sense to spend $514,000 per cell at San Quentin? That doesn't include annual operating costs, which historically have been greater at San Quentin than at more modern correctional facilities.

The audit estimates the new facility at San Quentin would cost $58.8 million per year to run.

THE STATE'S Legislative Analyst, an independent budget watchdog, urged the governor and Legislature to scrub the plans and build the complex at another location where the cost of construction and operations could be less.

That was in 2006. Since then the cost has continued to rise.

When the death row plans were first approved by state lawmakers in 2002, the cost was $220 million for a complex that had 25 % more cells.

The price rose when soils tests showed the site is bay mud, which required re-engineering the complex, designing different foundations and bringing in tons of fill, most of it coming from flattening the prison's Dairy Hill.

One of the state's goals was to end the current practice of double-celling because San Quentin's death row has more inmates than cells. The higher cost forced the state to scale back the size of the complex. It will still require double-celling of many inmates.

Last year, Huffman was able to use the analyst's advice to win the Legislature's approval of a bill that would require an audit of the state's plans.

But, at the last minute, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Huffman's bill.

The governor said delaying construction is adding $1 million per month to the construction cost.

The Assembly, on its own, ordered the new audit.

HUFFMAN is not talking about closing the 156-year-old prison, moving executions or even relocating all death row inmates.

He is seeking a more cost-effective alternative, possibly building a smaller complex at another location on the prison's land and building additional condemned-inmate cells at another prison. Given the time it takes for those inmates to exhaust their legal rights, it is possible they can be held at a more cost-effective high-security facility at another prison.

Huffman and Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey are hoping that the rising costs will force the state to look into possible cost-saving alternatives.

A follow-up audit should outline some possibilities.

Huffman and Kinsey have argued that by moving the proposed death row off a 40-acre site on the west end of the prison, the state could save money and free up prison land that could be turned to another public use, such as a new ferry port and affordable housing.

Their vision for those 40 acres is secondary to keeping the state from moving forward on a plan that no longer makes financial sense, particularly at a time when the state faces a deep budget crisis.

The state's plan adds up to a costly boondoggle that transcends Marin's concerns.

MOVING forward with projects like this deepens the budget hole and crisis that face state lawmakers and taxpayers.

To allow this project to move forward is wrong. Schwarzenegger, and Gov. Gray Davis before him, have pushed this project despite mounting evidence it is the wrong approach.

Now is the time for the governor and legislators to seriously - and publicly - explore possible alternatives.

We hope Huffman can persuade his colleagues to do the right thing.

(source: Marin Independent-Journal)

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