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A Chance for Wilson to Do the Right Thing : Prisons: The governor should heed a Latino Caucus proposal to abandon an East L.A. site that the state may no longer need.

August 09, 1992|ART TORRES | Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) represents the East Los Angeles district in which the proposed prison would be located

Amid the ruckus over the budget stalemate, Gov. Pete Wilson has a rare window of opportunity to resolve a longstanding dispute with the people of East Los Angeles. He is once again being urged--this time by the Latino Legislative Caucus, headed by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles)--to drop plans for a costly state prison in East Los Angeles. He should seize the opportunity.

Few issues have so aroused the ire of Latinos in California--and for good reason. The prison has come to symbolize the state's emerging social and economic rift. Latinos and others justifiably resent the constant placement of unwanted and dangerous facilities in poor, depressed and predominantly minority neighborhoods.

The sentiment is deeper than NIMBY-ism. The back yard of East Los Angeles is already littered with five prison facilities, including a new federal detention center already notorious for several dramatic inmate escapes. Waste incinerators, dumping sites and other dangerous installations also dot the landscape. By contrast, there are no prisons west of the Harbor Freeway.

The state nonetheless insists--and has done so for almost a decade--that East Los Angeles can tolerate one more blighting intrusion. On a larger scale, this attitude--compounded daily--bears some responsibility for the Los Angeles uprising we witnessed last May. Depressed communities, relegated to the margins and sustained by a meager diet of social and economic scraps, invariably blow up.

Simple economics may ultimately drive this decision. Sacramento number-crunchers are finally waking up to the reality that Latino elected officials--Richard Alatorre, Gloria Molina, Richard Polanco, Lucille Roybal-Allard, myself and others--have been hammering for close to a decade: This project is not cheap. Priced at $147 million, this would be the most expensive state prison ever built. Can our cash-hemorrhaging state really afford this?

Moreover, the demand side of the equation has changed. Prison analysts now acknowledge that the urgent need for prison construction has decreased markedly since the boom of the 1980s. Indeed, the latest statistics suggest that we may not even need this additional facility.

The better alternative on the prison issue, advanced by the Latino Caucus and under serious consideration by Wilson, would redirect state efforts to the almost-complete Lancaster prison site. This would save the state millions of dollars and result in a net gain of about 5,000 prison beds.

This is a "win-win" scenario for the governor. By abandoning the Los Angeles site, he can demonstrate his fiscal responsibility to taxpayers throughout the state. Equally important, he can close a divisive chapter in California history and demonstrate his leadership and vision to the state's growing Latino community.

It's his move.

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