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Governor’s Race -- Tougher Than Thou : Pointed campaign sound bites about rapists do not make good public policy

This week both Gov. Pete Wilson and his democratic challenger, Kathleen Brown, have pushed the issue of sex crimes to the front and center of their campaigns. In this state where “three strikes and you’re out” sped through the Legislature earlier this year, it is hardly surprising that the tough-on-crime ante is easily upped. If “three strikes” is good, wouldn’t “one strike” be better, especially for such indisputably heinous crimes as rape and child molestation?

Thus both Brown and Wilson are vowing to get tougher on first-time sex offenders. The governor has proposed that first-time convicted rapists be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Brown supports a bill that would double the length of sentences for a first offense, which now ranges from three to eight years, and imprison for 25 years to life a first-time rapist who used a deadly weapon or caused serious injury. That legislation, introduced by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), passed the Senate in June and now moves to the Assembly.

In a series of heated press conferences, statements and television commercials this week, Brown and Wilson have each accused the other of distortions and weakness on this issue. But while the candidates’ tougher-than-thou positions on first-time rapists make for pointed campaign sound bites, the public policy gains such mandatory stiffer sentences for these sex crimes would bring are considerably more opaque. Besides, the three-strikes law enacted in March counts convictions for rape and child molestation as strikes. Thus California has already gotten much tougher on these sex crimes.

But the three-strikes law, which takes so much discretion away from judges, is moving into the criminal justice system the way a mouse moves through a snake. District attorneys are already inundated with criminal defendants who, facing life imprisonment on a third-strike charge, are requesting a jury trial. Some courts are so overloaded with these trials that pending civil matters are being postponed. And still, the state has not nearly enough public funds or prison space to house convicted third-strike felons for life.

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Shall we add to this one-strike for rapists and sex offenders? Some fear the mandatory sentences in such a law would make juries balk at convicting accused rapists or, far worse, prompt rapists to kill their victims so as to leave no witnesses. We share these concerns.

Aren’t these two highly intelligent candidates running for a job that’s far broader than sheriff? California has so many other pressing problems; Wilson and Brown should be debating them.


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