SACRAMENTO — Senate Democrats were unable to reach a compromise within their own ranks Thursday on whether to approve Gov. George Deukmejian's proposal to build a new state prison near downtown Los Angeles.
Both the Assembly and Senate are set to meet again today in a continuing special session for yet another attempt to settle what has become a major clash between Deukmejian and Senate Democratic leaders, particularly President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles.
As a result of Senate action Thursday, the lawmakers will be considering four alternative measures that deal with a Los Angeles prison site. Two of them would require the Administration to study one or more additional sites before moving ahead with Deukmejian's preferred plan to build a prison on industrial property two miles southeast of the Civic Center, near largely residential Latino neighborhoods.
Passage of any of the bills would allow the Deukmejian Administration to open up new prisons in San Diego and near Stockton in the next two months, just as soon as as they become ready to begin taking inmates.
A 1982 law designed to force construction of a Los Angeles prison forbids the opening of any new prisons until work has begun on a facility in Los Angeles County.
Still smarting from a sharp exchange with Deukmejian earlier in the week, Roberti railed against the governor at a press conference, calling him a "dictator."
Deukmejian on Wednesday had raised the specter of prison riots, describing the state prison system as dangerously overcrowded and "a potential powder keg waiting to explode."
But Roberti charged that Deukmejian was using the issue as a way of striking out at Democrats, and suggested that the governor was responding to public opinion polls showing his Democratic rival for governor, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, gaining support.
"It's transparent that the polls are getting to him," Roberti said.
Roberti told reporters that Deukmejian could open the two new prisons without any action at all on the East Los Angeles site by using his emergency powers, pointing out that former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. had invoked such emergency authority to deal with an infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies.
"He says we are in imminent danger of a riot," Roberti said. "That's a lot worse than a couple of medflies copulating. . . . I think it is a serious enough matter for the governor to declare an emergency state of affairs."
However, top aides to Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said Thursday that the governor may not be able to exercise his emergency authority unless there were a prison riot under way or one that was "imminent."
"The evaluation would rely on the factual question of how imminent the danger is," said Richard Martland, chief assistant attorney general. Although Martland stressed that no formal legal opinion has been prepared or requested, he said that in the past the office has interpreted the emergency powers statutes "very conservatively."
Other Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Robert Presley of Riverside, were trying to find some compromise as the Legislature continued in session two weeks after it was originally scheduled to adjourn for the year.
Under a new Presley proposal, the Administration would complete a more thorough study of the impact of building a prison on the Los Angeles site before purchasing the property, which is located near 12th Street and Santa Fe Avenue.
But opponents to building the prison on the property want to open up the selection process and look at other sites as well.
'Like a Cockroach'
"We'd rather kill the bill," said Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the proposed prison site. "It's like a cockroach, it keeps coming back."
With the state prisons now filled to 170% of capacity and new inmates arriving at a rate of 200 per week, there is no dispute that the prison crisis is real. However, it is unclear how much that crisis would be exacerbated by a further delay in authorizing the Los Angeles prison.
The 1982 law that prevents any prison from opening was a response to complaints from lawmakers from other areas, many of whom were tired of seeing new state prisons built in their districts. The Legislature could drop that requirement, but it could prove difficult to persuade legislators from outside Los Angeles to do so.
The first cellblocks at the Stockton and San Diego sites will not be ready to receive inmates until the end of November or early December. Legislators are scheduled to return to the Capitol on Dec. 1 to begin the 1987-88 session. Conceivably, lawmakers could wait until then to deal with the controversy over the Los Angeles site.