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Bill to Paddle Graffiti Vandals Dies in Tie Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite intense election-year pressure to appear tough on crime, a deeply divided Assembly committee rejected a bill Wednesday that would have allowed juvenile court judges to punish youthful graffiti vandals with as many as 10 whacks from a wooden paddle.

The Assembly Ways and Means Committee voted 11-11 on the measure, authored by Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), failing by the slimmest of margins to muster the dozen votes needed for the bill to escape the 23-member committee.

Conroy expressed confidence late in the afternoon that the bill--inspired by the highly publicized caning of American teen-ager Michael Fay for spray-painting cars in Singapore--would win the necessary support.

But it died after Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and other Democratic leaders pulled aside Assemblyman Willard Murray (D-Paramount), a co-author of Conroy’s bill, and persuaded him to switch his vote just before the committee adjourned.

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“We got Speakerized,” Conroy said, using the term coined to reflect Brown’s ability to sway votes of errant Democrats. “This is a textbook example of how the Democrats are able to bottle up good legislation.”

Murray said he still supports Conroy’s measure, but decided to switch after Brown and other top Democrats told him it was a “wedge bill” designed to be used in the upcoming elections to embarrass Democrats who vote against the paddling proposal.

“I think it became a partisan issue, so being a good team player, I went along with what they wanted,” Murray said. “There were a number of Democratic members, six or eight, who asked me to change my vote. . . . I won’t lose a great deal of sleep over it.”

Conroy’s proposal received nationwide publicity in the weeks after he suggested that judges be allowed to order parents or court bailiffs to administer four to 10 strokes with a three-quarter-inch-thick wooden paddle to convicted graffiti vandals.

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Conroy began pursuing the idea after being prodded by constituents and staff members caught up in the highly publicized debate over the Singapore case. Fay, an 18-year-old high school senior from Dayton, Ohio, received four strokes from a rattan cane May 5 after being found guilty of vandalism in the island nation.

Conroy’s bill also would have required publicizing the names of juvenile offenders who were paddled, a tactic designed to heighten the humiliation and deter other would-be taggers. The measure also contained a sunset clause that would have required the Legislature to renew its approval after paddling was given a three-year trial run.

Brown said the paddling bill “met its appropriate fate” and that, with politicians whipped up by election-year fervor over crime, it represented a “terrible way to make public policy.”

“I think Mr. Murray observed the Republicans trying to politically embarrass some of our members,” Brown said. “He wasn’t about to let that happen. When he realized there were games being played, he canceled the game.”

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Conroy asked that the bill be reconsidered by the committee next week, but the delay jeopardizes any chance to win final approval in both houses by the end of the legislative year Aug. 31.

The proposal, which would have reinstituted court-ordered corporal punishment in the United States for the first time in more than four decades, was pummeled by opponents during Wednesday’s hearing. It drew sharp criticism from a wide range of foes, including children’s rights advocates, educators and civil libertarians.

Some critics worried that Conroy’s proposal and similar ideas circulating in Florida, Maryland and Texas threatened to tug the country back toward a style of courtroom punishment abandoned decades ago. Several expressed concern about the potential for sadistic abuse when society gives people power to inflict pain on others. Others cited studies suggesting that paddling could inflict injuries ranging from blood blisters to loss of bladder control.

Critics also pointed to research showing that corporal punishment can lead to embitterment, anger and post-traumatic stress while teaching impressionable youths the contradictory lesson that violence is the way to solve problems.

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The most heated attacks Wednesday came from Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, who suggested that Conroy’s bill was a misdirected, hypocritical attempt to solve a complex social problem.

“If this bill goes through we’d be opening the door to court-sanctioned, government-sanctioned violence,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). “We’re trying to teach our young people nonviolent approaches to violence. Violence begets violence. You’ve got to understand that paddling or beating a young person, no matter how minimal, sends a message that violence is really OK.”

The committee chairman, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), cited studies showing that most violent felons suffered at the hands of abusive adults during their youth. “It’s pretty clear that most people in our prisons who are violent were physically, violently attacked while they were children,” he said.

Owen Waters, a California Teachers Assn. lobbyist, told the committee that “this makes my own list of the 10 goofiest bills of the session.”

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The constitutionality of Conroy’s bill remains open to debate. The California Legislative Counsel, which provides legal opinions to state lawmakers, determined that Conroy’s bill is unconstitutional. But an analysis by the staff counsel for the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, which in June approved the measure by a 4-1 vote, said the issue remains “an open question” because there is “no bright line” setting the limit for what is cruel and unusual punishment.

Conroy, however, resolutely defended his bill as the surest way to persuade teen-age taggers to stop their destructive practice.

“We have created a whole group of individuals who feel they are above the law and can act in any criminal fashion with total impunity,” Conroy said, adding that paddling would “send a very clear message to those who destroy property. And the message is that there is a consequence for your actions.”

Conroy told the committee that California has “lost one or two generations of children because of our misguided juvenile justice policies,” suggesting that his paddling bill would help “save some of these children from a life of petty crime so that we can start to close prisons in the future, not just keep opening them.”

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The Orange County assemblyman brought several experts on graffiti and gangs before the committee in an effort to provide testimony on the merits of paddling youthful offenders.

“I’m concerned about self-esteem and what this could do to a child’s psyche,” said Glenn Dowell of the Youth Empowerment Project, an anti-crime program in Atlanta. “But the kids who I have talked to in one detention facility after another have said to me they would not be where they are if someone had disciplined them.”

Charles D. Willis, a psychologist who worked in California prisons for a decade, said that “early corrective discipline will keep some of these young people out of prison,” adding that “ordinary discipline will not damage anyone’s psyche.”


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