Gov. George Deukmejian, saying he wants to "send a very strong and clear message to the criminal element in California," signed a major package of prison construction legislation Tuesday to deal with an inmate population that has swelled to crisis proportions.
"If you commit a violent crime, you're going to pay the price, and we're going to make room for you in our state prisons," Deukmejian declared before signing the four prison measures.
The centerpiece of the package is a $78.8-million crash construction program to add space for 5,000 new inmates in a number of existing institutions by next July. In addition, the bills authorize a new 3,000-bed prison in Kings County and shorten required environmental reviews to speed construction of other prison projects.
170 New Inmates Weekly
The governor also used the ceremony, held at a Los Angeles office building, to hammer home his desire to move ahead quickly with a new 1,700-bed prison near downtown Los Angeles, which has been held up in the Assembly. "There is going to be a prison in L.A. County; I can guarantee it," Deukmejian said.
The legislative package is a stopgap effort to deal with a prison population that has ballooned in the wake of tougher sentencing laws and other factors until the Deukmejian Administration can complete a long-delayed $1.2-billion plan to build a series of new prisons and expand capacity at existing institutions.
California's prison system--the nation's largest--was designed to accommodate 29,000 inmates but now houses more than 48,000. At the rate new convicts are entering the system--about 170 a week--corrections officials estimate that the prison population will climb to about 68,000 by 1989, the deadline for completing Deukmejian's long-range prison projects.
Under the crash construction program signed into law on Tuesday, various prison facilities, including day rooms and gyms, will be converted into cells. New cells will be built at institutions in Susanville, Jamestown and Tehachapi. Construction is expected to begin by the end of the year under "fast track" environmental reviews approved by the Legislature. Financing will come from a $1-billion budget reserve that Deukmejian had set aside for emergencies.
Other features of the legislation are aimed at speeding up parts of the governor's long-range prison program. They will:
- Bypass parts of the state's strict environmental review process for new prisons to be built in Riverside and Del Norte counties. New procedures would allow a legislative committee rather than the courts to rule on environmental challenges.
- Authorize a 3,000-bed maximum- and medium-security prison at Corcoran in Kings County with an abbreviated environmental review.
- Block an environmental suit lodged by farmers near a proposed prison site in Ione.
- Allow an unusual lease-purchase method of financing for some of the long-term prison projects. The procedure, which calls for the sale of bonds, will free up $300 million for several new prisons.
Deukmejian originally had asked the Legislature to waive environmental requirements for many of his emergency and long-range prison proposals. The Republican governor said that was the only way he could be sure of completing the projects on time. Democrats in the Assembly balked, however, and refused to grant anything more than abbreviated environmental reviews.
Deukmejian expressed confidence Tuesday that the 5,000 emergency prison beds will be completed by next July even without blanket environmental waivers. He said, however, that there is an urgent need to limit what he called abuses in the environmental process.
'A Larger, Greater Concern'
"Having large numbers of criminals in the community committing crimes is perhaps, in the mind of a lot of people, a larger, greater environmental concern," Deukmejian said.
Many prison experts doubt that the state can complete its emergency construction program by July even with the kinds of environmental concessions approved by the Legislature. That could cause political problems for Deukmejian, who will be facing reelection in November.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is preparing for a second gubernatorial campaign, recently called Deukmejian's record on prison construction "a fiasco."
The governor carefully sidestepped questions about those charges Tuesday and said instead that he will use the full weight of his office to complete the job on time.
On the issue of a Los Angeles prison, Deukmejian said "there is no secret" that Assemblywomen Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles) was a key player in the Assembly's refusal to approve its construction as part of the governor's prison package. He said, however, that he hopes to reach agreement with Molina and other locally elected officials when the Legislature returns in January.
The Senate agreed earlier this month to spend $31.4 million to purchase 30 acres about two miles southeast of the Civic Center for the prison project. Molina objected to the prison's proximity to Boyle Heights, however, and persuaded Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) to keep the project from coming to a vote.
Republican Assemblyman Larry Stirling of San Diego, who carried the governor's prison package in the Assembly, lauded Brown during Tuesday's bill-signing ceremony, saying the Speaker "grabbed a bunch of the players by the scruff of the neck" and got them to agree on the legislation.
However, Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), the prison bill's author, characterized the Assembly's blocking the Los Angeles prison as "absolutely shameful."
"It's just something that's not right," Presley lamented. "Since this county contributes about 35% of the prison population, I don't know why the rest of the counties should absorb that."