CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : ‘One Strike’ Rape Bill Is Signed by Wilson


Gov. Pete Wilson came to Los Angeles on Thursday and signed what he called the toughest rape law in the nation: the so-called one strike bill, which requires up to life in prison for first-time violent sex offenders.

Wilson deliberately staged the signing of the bill in the largest media market in the state, and the campaign-like nature of the event--held on a rooftop at the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters in Van Nuys in the presence of nine television cameras--prompted immediate criticism from his November election opponent, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

“This is a made-for-TV governor’s event--nothing more than a campaign event paid for at public expense,” said John Whitehurst, Brown’s campaign spokesman, who attended Wilson’s lengthy news conference armed with news releases that said Wilson had backed down to Brown on the “one strike” issue.


Wilson termed the Brown campaign’s criticism “a pathetic postscript” to a historic day. By following through on his promise to sign the “one strike” bill, he said, he was slamming the prison doors shut, converting career criminals to career inmates. “The revolving door has stopped revolving,” said the Republican incumbent. “If you commit aggravated rape or child molestation, you are going to go away for a very long time.”

Boosters of the new law, authored by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), say the long sentences should deter some violent rapists and child molesters from continuing to commit sex crimes and put those who persist behind bars before they harm multiple victims. But civil libertarians and defense attorneys contend it will have little or no deterrent effect, and they worry that stiff penalties could be applied in cases where they are not warranted.

Thursday was not the first time that sex crimes have dominated the gubernatorial debate. Wilson has aired a television commercial charging that Brown was opposed to the “one strike” bill. Brown called Wilson’s ad a “despicable lie,” arguing that she supported an amended version of the bill.

The original “one strike” bill by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) would have required that nearly all sex offenders be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Although it was praised by Wilson, the measure was widely attacked for being so harsh that it might hinder prosecutions or prompt rapists to kill their victims.

The bill that Wilson signed Thursday calls for a penalty of 25 years to life for sexual assaults involving torture, mayhem, kidnaping or burglary with the intent to commit rape. Lesser sex crimes could bring sentences of 15 years to life but would have to include special circumstances such as the use of a firearm.

“If I had my way, we would have LWOP--life without possibility of parole,” Wilson said Thursday, directing many of his remarks to two women who sat nearby. Wilson said the women, each a survivor of a sexual assault, had helped educate legislators about the need for tougher sentencing. Wilson also praised Bergeson, saying her efforts to pass the bill were so impressive that “maybe we should retire her jersey.”

Bergeson, meanwhile, called the law “the most important bill to get through the Legislature this year” and praised the efforts of victims who came to Sacramento to testify on behalf of the measure, saying “they made the difference.”

“This bill will remove those predators from our streets,” Bergeson said. “Women and children will feel safer.”

An analysis by the state Department of Corrections has determined that the new law, which goes into effect Nov. 30, will have a marginal initial impact on the state’s prison population because most repeat sex offenders would already be covered by the state’s “three strikes” law. By 1998, the “one strike” law is expected to add 11 inmates to the state prison system above and beyond those imprisoned under the “three strikes” law.

But the “one strike” law’s effect would increase dramatically in the years that followed. By 2025, the number would have grown to 2,026 additional inmates, requiring more than $157 million for prison construction and another $42 million each year in operating costs.

Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.