Commentary: San Quentin should be sold, not rebuilt

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer last week pulled back on issuing $590 million in bonds to pay for the reconstruction of San Quentin's crumbling death row.

Lockyer's decision was based on a legal technicality, which means its impact may only be temporary. But anything that would slow down this expensive boondoggle is worthy of commendation.

Credit goes to two legislators, Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael, who've questioned the costly expansion of San Quentin's death row without an adequate examination of alternatives.

They sent a letter to the Treasurer asserting that the sale of the bonds would be illegal because Gov. Schwarzenegger had vetoed language in the budget bill requiring the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to determine if it would be legal to double-cell death row inmates prior to the issuance of any bonds. That legal battle is still working its way through the courts.

While that occurs, state leaders would be wise to cancel the reconstruction of San Quentin's death row altogether, given the state's fiscal crisis and debt situation.

Last year the state auditor issued a new report, warning that the cost to rebuild and add approximately 100 new cells to the death row complex at San Quentin had ballooned to $395 million, or more than a half million dollars per cell. It turns out the land underneath San Quentin is very unstable San Francisco Bay mud, hardly surprising for the bay-side prison. Reconstruction would require costly excavation of 15 to 20 feet and then tons of rock to reinforce unstable soils.

If the courts don't allow California to house two death row inmates per cell, the complex could reach capacity by 2014, just a few years after it was rebuilt. That price tag does not include additional operating cost for the expanded facility, $58.8 million a year more on average.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.