Advertisement

Key Assembly Panel Backs Bergeson’s ‘One Strike’ Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elbowing into a fray that has taken center stage in the governor’s race, a key Assembly committee approved an Orange County lawmaker’s bill Tuesday that would put first-time child molesters and violent rapists in prison for up to 25 years to life.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee endorsed the so-called “one strike” bill carried by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) on a 4-1 vote after a back-room deal was cut to tie the measure to sex-crime legislation carried by three Democrats and another Republican.

By doing so, Bergeson was able to propel the measure through the Democrat-dominated Public Safety Committee, which has historically been a graveyard for GOP anti-crime efforts. The three Democrats, meanwhile, gained assurances that Gov. Pete Wilson will sign their measures.

Although her bill was watered down by the Public Safety Committee, Bergeson continued to portray it as the strongest effort to deal with sexual predators in years.

Advertisement

“I’m very much relieved,” Bergeson said. “I would like to have had a stronger bill, but under the circumstances, it’s a very good bill and sends a tough message to sexual predators. It’s probably the toughest in the nation.”

Bergeson began carrying the bill at the behest of Wilson, who has made the measure a centerpiece of his election-year fight on crime. In recent weeks, it has sparked a bitter dispute between the governor and Democrat challenger Kathleen Brown over her support of the proposal--or lack thereof.

Wilson aired a TV ad in late July portraying Brown as opposed to the “one strike” bill, which originally called for a blanket sentence of life without parole for nearly all perpetrators of sex crimes.

Brown countered by calling Wilson’s advertisement “a despicable lie,” arguing that she dropped her opposition to the bill after it was narrowed in the Senate to affect only the most violent predators with a maximum sentence of 25 years to life. She aired two commercials accusing Wilson of lying about her position and “exploiting the pain of rape victims to cover up his failed record.”

Advertisement

That war of words in news conferences and commercials grew out of an ongoing Brown attack on Wilson over her allegations that relaxed parole policies under the governor have improperly allowed dangerous criminals onto the streets.

Wilson has said he would sign a revised Bergeson bill into law if it passes this year but would continue to fight in the future for legislation that would send any convicted rapist to prison for life without parole.

When first proposed, the bill called for a blanket sentence of life without the possibility of parole for nearly all sex offenses. That tough stance drew attacks from civil libertarians and other groups, including some district attorneys and women’s organizations, who said the measure was so harsh it might actually hinder prosecutions or prompt rapists to kill their victims.

After an aborted attempt to push the measure through the Senate, Bergeson redrafted the bill to delete all references to life without parole, substituting a penalty of 25 years to life for most serious offenses.

Advertisement

The Public Safety Committee narrowed Bergeson’s bill still further Tuesday by requiring that only the most brutal sexual assaults--those involving torture, mayhem, kidnaping or burglary with the intent to commit rape--would result in a sentence of 25 years to life without parole.

Lesser crimes could still earn sentences of 15 years to life, but would have to include special circumstances, such as the use of a firearm or dangerous weapon, more than one victim or the administering of narcotics.

As now drafted, the bill applies only to “the worst of the worst sexual predators,” said Gregory Totten, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn., which threw its support behind Bergeson only after the measure was redrafted.

Although it has been substantially rewritten, critics continued to blast Bergeson’s bill as overly broad.

Advertisement

“It still is over-drawn,” said Francisco Lobaco, American Civil Liberties Union state legislative director. “The courts currently do impose extremely long sentences” for sex crimes.

Under current law, the penalties for various sex crimes range from three to eight years in prison, but many perpetrators are paroled after serving about half their sentence. Lobaco, however, argued that judges hand out sentences of more than 100 years for the most extreme cases.

To push the measure through, Bergeson agreed to link her “one strike” bill to sex crime legislation authored by Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland (R-Granada Hills), state Sen. Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), Assemblywoman Valerie Brown (D-Sonoma) and Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Cerritos), the committee’s chairman.

During the hearing, Assemblywoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) attempted to hitch a measure of her own to the “one strike” bill. Lee’s legislation, which would require that state prisons offer rehabilitation to first-time nonviolent offenders, is opposed by Wilson.

Advertisement

Boland lashed out at Lee, arguing that an attempt to link a measure opposed by Wilson to the “one strike” legislative package was “unfair, unconscionable” and “meant to kill this bill.”

Lee ultimately backed down, saying she had no intention of sabotaging Bergeson’s bill, but wanted to “broaden” it some.


Advertisement