A Budget Solution—Sell Off San Quentin
March 31, 2009
William F. Shughart II
California’s budgetary headaches finally have gotten painful enough that some state legislators want to sell Death Row. That’s a killer idea.
San Quentin State Prison, which houses more than 5,300 inmates, including 635 of the 675 people awaiting death sentences in California, sits on a 435-acre peninsula overlooking San Francisco Bay in Marin County. Offering a prime location and breathtaking scenery, officials think that, even in a down market, the prison’s buildings and grounds would fetch as much as $2 billion from private developers.
The proceeds would be used to build a new prison facility on far less expensive real estate in another part of the state, producing a net gain for Sacramento, according to one Realtor, of roughly $1 billion.
Selling San Quentin would yield another major financial benefit: allowing California to reverse a budget-draining decision taken in 2003 to build a new Death Row complex on the prison’s grounds. The Legislature initially appropriated $220 million to finance the project, with the expectation that it would be completed by 2011. Last year, after an audit upped the price tag to nearly $360 million, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allocated $136 million in additional funding. Largely owing to steady growth in the Death Row population, a second audit report released recently raised the ante to $395.5 million.
That works out to $686,632 for each of the 576 cells the state-of-the-art death row facility will contain. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hopes to cut the cost per inmate to half that figure by double-bunking them, raising San Quentin’s maximum capacity to 1,152 condemned prisoners.
But that plan may not survive challenge in a prison system chronically accused of overcrowding. If it does not, $395.5 million will buy adequate accommodations for San Quentin’s Death Row population only for three more years.
Operating the new facility is estimated to demand an extra $1.2 billion over 20 years, adding $50,000 to $100,000 per inmate over and above current operating costs.
And how will the new Death Row unit be financed? By selling what euphemistically are called lease-revenue bonds. California’s Public Works Board will borrow the funds and lease the complex back to the corrections department, whose rent payments will be used to service and repay the debt.
But where will the corrections department get the money it needs to make the scheduled payments? Not by selling license plates.
It will draw from the state General Fund, of course, meaning that the pea in this budgetary shell game ends up in front of the taxpayers.
Because extra security precautions and endless legal appeals for condemned prisoners are extremely costly, it turns out to be cheaper to incarcerate someone for life without the possibility of parole than to sentence him (or rarely her) to death.
That realization has prompted a number of states to contemplate, in these fiscal hard times, repealing the death penalty provisions of their criminal codes. Only 14 condemned inmates have been executed in California since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1977. The members of San Quentin’s Death Row population thus are more likely to die of natural causes than by lethal injection. Why burden the taxpayers with paying for an upscale facility that so rarely serves its stated purpose?
Sure, San Quentin is decrepit: It was built in 1852 and the most modern of the prison’s three existing Death Row units dates to 1960. But it makes little sense, at a time of unprecedented state budget deficits, to pour $395.5 million more (if that is indeed the final figure) into a facility that should have been shut down and sold off when Gov. Ronald Reagan first proposed it in 1971. That same step has been recommended twice since, including a legislative criminal justice committee endorsement in 1981.
But why stop there? The L.A. Coliseum, San Francisco’s Cow Palace, Candlestick Park and many other government-owned properties could just as easily be marketed for ready cash.