FIT TO BE TIED: How bad can things get for California? They just got there. In another milestone of sublime dysfunction, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was forced to postpone the execution of Albert Greenwood Brown Jr., a 28-year resident of Death Row, because nobody in San Quentin bothered to notice that one of the three compounds that go into the lethal injection was just about to expire. Until too late, that is. All last month, Brown and another Death Row inmate — Michael Morales — were in a race to the finish to be the first California inmate executed since 2006, when a federal judge put the whole thing on ice to determine whether the hot needle might offend constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Not willing to go quietly into the CDCR’s long good night, Brown filed all the last-minute motions we’ve come to expect from a dead man. The time allotted for the judges to respond exceeded Brown’s September 30 date with the green gurney. Worse, they exceeded the October 1 expiration date — that CDCR officials only just discovered — of the state’s limited supply of thiopental sodium — a key ingredient of their killer cocktail. It turns out that CDCR won’t be able to get their hands on a new batch until sometime next spring. Given that thiopental allegedly renders prisoners unconscious so they don’t experience the slow suffocation caused by the paralytic agent also administered, or the searing pain caused by the drug that stops their heart from beating, a good supply is absolutely crucial for the last dance to commence. With this in mind, lawyers for CDCR found themselves pushing the judges to speed up deliberations on whether the new and improved death penalty protocols met — or violated — the cruel-and-unusual standards. Judges take themselves pretty seriously and don’t like to be rushed, especially when life-and-death issues are on the line. In that high-minded lingo only judges can deliver, they told the CDCR to back the hell off. Albert Greenwood Brown’s last gurney ride would take place at a later date.
I’ve been struck by the resounding silence of all the anti-government watchdogs who otherwise can be counted on to yap about bloated bureaucracies and the proverbial Departments of Waste, Inefficiency, and Fraud. As a technical matter, how hard can it be to load someone up sufficiently that they never wake up? Last year, 114 knuckleheads in Santa Barbara County managed to do themselves in with no help from anybody — accidentally or otherwise — by abusing various pharmaceuticals. If we’re going to spend 10 percent of the state’s budget on the country’s biggest prison system, perhaps the CDCR could hire a high-school intern to make sure everything in the medicine cabinet is current. (By contrast, higher education — once the glimmering hood ornament of the California Dream — commands just 7 percent of the budget.) With California’s prison population swelling by 600 percent in the past 12 years, California prisons are nasty places to work. Employees who work there are among the highest paid on the planet, which explains why California spends about $45,000 a year per inmate. By contrast, the national average is just $28,600.
Naturally, none of this was mentioned at the panel discussion held Tuesday night at the Museum of Natural History on what ails California and how it can be saved. On the panel were five high-octane smarty-pants who have forgotten more about California government than I can ever hope to learn. Phil Ting, an assessor out of San Francisco, noted that California ranks 47th out of all 50 states in per-pupil spending. New Jersey and New York spend twice that amount. Ting’s suggestion was to amend Proposition 13, so that big commercial property owners no longer enjoy the considerable property-tax protections — “subsidies” he called them — passed to protect elderly home owners from being priced out of their homes by the tax man. At least that was a suggestion. Most of the panelists were more pessimistic, pointing out how everything we’ve tried to “fix” things in Sacramento has served to make matters worse. Campaign finance reforms — enacted to minimize the influence of Big Money — have spawned the emergence of independent expenditure committees, which raise gobs of money and drop last-minute hit-pieces on behalf of their preferred candidates, all allegedly without a shred of coordination with said candidates. Where’s the accountability there? Journalist Mark Paul — silver-haired and red-faced — explained how districts were drawn to give the dominant party a bulletproof edge in registered voters. Under this system, the only real action takes place during the primary election, the outcome of most general elections being foregone conclusions. Two years ago, for example, an obscure Los Angeles Democrat named John Pérez won the primary election for an Assembly seat with only 5,701 votes. Each district, by the way, includes about 500,000 people, which means Pérez was voted into office by just one percent of his constituents. This year, Pérez — a rookie greenhorn where Sacramento politics are concerned — was made Speaker of the Assembly, one of the two most powerful positions in the state, by garnering just 41 votes of his peers. Today, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pérez cut a backroom budget deal that includes a $30-million tax break for family members of Donald Fisher, founder of Gap and Banana Republic. Given that the state is facing a $19-billion budget shortfall, some might question the wisdom and timing of so generous a concession. Naturally, there’s no shortage of persuasive reasons why Fishers are deserving. The fact that the Fisher family has donated more than $8 million to state political campaigns — and $1 million to good environmental causes — in recent years I’m sure has nothing to do with anything. The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the budget deal — now a record-setting 100 days late — on this budget. Maybe the Fisher deal will still be in there. But definitely, there will be real pain inflicted on real people. Billions of dollars’ worth. There will be no public hearings in advance of the vote. Few members of the Assembly will have printed copies of the budget. Fewer still will have read it. Pérez, by all accounts, is a good guy, his story life-affirming. But only 5,701 votes.
The good news is that we can’t really blame the Department of Corrections for botching the execution. It turns out there’s a worldwide shortage of thiopental sodium, which in past incarnations was also used as truth serum. The only American manufacturer — which disapproves of its use in executions — can’t get a necessary ingredient from a subcontractor. As a result, 17 inmates condemned to be executed in nine states might wind up getting a de facto reprieve. It turns out we’re all in the same boat. Even if it’s sinking, I find that somehow reassuring.