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Assembly OKs Downtown L.A. Site for Prison

July 11, 1986|LEO C. WOLINSKY | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Assembly handed Gov. George Deukmejian a major victory Thursday when itvoted 60 to 16 to build Los Angeles County's first state prison in an industrial area two miles southeast of the Civic Center.

The Assembly was seen as the last major hurdle facing the proposal to place the 1,700-bed medium-security prison on a 30-acre parcel near Boyle Heights. The measure now goes back to the Senate, which first approved it last year, for expected approval of lower-house amendments next month.

The prison proposal was bitterly opposed by community groups and Mayor Tom Bradley, Deukmejian's Democratic gubernatorial opponent. The issue had become locked in a partisan struggle that h1633951860Administration's ambitious--but often delayed--prison construction program.

Opposition Dropped

The deadlock was broken when Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) dropped his opposition to the Deukmejian-backed proposal.

Although a floor fight is forecast in the Senate, sponsors of the bill say they have enough support to win final approval and send the measure to the governor.

A spokesman for Deukmejian reacted cautiously to the Assembly's action, saying only that the governor "was certainly encouraged" by the vote.

Meanwhile, community groups in East Los Angeles that had waged a heavy campaign to defeat the proposal joined Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, whose district encompasses the proposed prison site, in labeling the vote "a sham."

"The entire community is opposed to this," declared Jose Luis Garcia, an East Los Angeles resident who spent the day lobbying Assembly members. "They all told me they would vote against it."

The prison, expected to cost at least $120 million, would be built on land owned by several private firms near Olympic Boulevard and Santa Fe Avenue. The $13-million estimated price for the land would be the highest ever paid by the state for a prison site. It is within a mile of two schools and Los Angeles' major Latino population center.

Plans call for construction bids to be solicited in the spring of 1988, following completion of an environmental impact report. However, Administration officials insist it now is too early to estimate when the prison would be operational.

State corrections officials have refused to lay out their ultimate plans for the prison, saying only that it will be used as a processing facility for new inmates, as a medical-psychiatric treatment center, or some combination of both.

That became a major point of contention during the Assembly debate when Molina charged that her community was being made a "dumping ground" for felons.

Noting that the East Los Angeles area already houses thousands of prisoners (including more than 8,000 at the central men's jail, about 1,600 at the Biscailuz Center and about 2,000 at Sybil Brand Institute for women), Molina said: "What we are talking about is a situation that has been unfair from the very beginning. . . . The Department of Corrections is pressing for an urban prison regardless of the cost to the state or to local residents."

No Perfect Site

Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, countered that "there is no such thing as a perfect site for a prison. Wherever you try to set one of these things down, there will be a substantial number of people who will oppose the location of the facility there."

The legislative action marked the turning point in a long debate that has divided not only state lawmakers but elected officials in Los Angeles County, who historically have jockeyed to make sure that any prison eventually built in the area is located outside their districts.

The Assembly vote was crucial for Deukmejian because of a state law that requires selection of a prison site in Los Angeles County before any new prisons can be occupied elsewhere. At least two new prison projects pushed by the Administration are due to begin receiving inmates by year's end.

Last year, that deadline helped the Administration push the downtown prison plan through the Senate. But in September, the proposal once more became a political football when Assembly Speaker Brown blocked its passage. Later, Bradley announced that he too opposed the plan, suggesting another location near the Magic Mountain amusement park in Saugus.

Bradley's Reaction

Bradley, however, took little active part in trying to defeat the downtown site after his heavily publicized announcement. And on Thursday he seemed to back away from his original stance.

Saying he was "opposed to the process" under which the site was selected more than the site itself, Bradley added: "It was never my responsibility, never my authority to determine where that prison was going to go."

Speaker Brown changed his mind and decided to support the downtown prison in the aftermath of an unrelated dispute with Molina. But he insisted earlier this week that the switch was not politically motivated.

Other sources close to the Assembly's leadership said the turnaround reflected "political realities."

"The governor was pushing on it and it was a thorn in everyone's side," Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) said in an interview. "Nobody wants tobe in a position to hold up prison construction. You can't be tough on crime if you won't put prisoners away. . . . Willie (Brown) does not want the Democrats to be in the position of trying to hold it up."

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