Serious Crime Falls in State's Major Cities

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Major crimes in California's largest cities and suburbs fell 8.5% in 1995, further accelerating a three-year spiral, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said Tuesday.

Lungren said a preliminary report by his office measuring crime in the state's population centers found that murder and other homicides declined 3.1% last year. He said robbery plunged 7.9% and forcible rape declined 3.9%.

The study also found that aggravated assault dropped 4.2%, along with burglary, 8.9%, and car theft, 11.4%.

In Orange County, those statewide trends held up, with six of eight local cities surveyed reporting a decline in crime. Three cities--Santa Ana, Fullerton and Orange--charted double-digit decreases in reported crimes, while the largest local agency, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, tallied a 4.8% dip in crimes handled.

In Irvine, there was an increase of less than 1% in overall crimes reported, and Huntington Beach had an increase of 1.6%. Irvine was the only Orange County city surveyed that logged an increase in violent crime, which was up 29%. That surge was driven by an upswing in reported robberies, from 22 the previous year to 35 in 1995.

Lungren, a likely Republican candidate for governor in 1998, said his figures refuted a "continuing drumbeat of pessimism" from the "liberal community," which has criticized the 1994 "three strikes" sentencing law as seriously flawed.

He cited recent reports by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a liberal-leaning think tank in San Francisco. Among other things, the center found that African Americans were sentenced disproportionately, accounting for 43% of "three strikes" inmates.

The state Department of Corrections has said that 85% of those locked up under the statute were convicted of nonviolent offenses on their second and third strikes.

The chief provision of the landmark law requires most felons convicted of a third serious or violent crime to go to prison for 25 years to life.

The crime rate in California has been falling since 1992, but its acceleration has intensified in the past three years.

Maury Evans, Orange County's chief assistant district attorney, gave a nod to the impact of "three strikes," but added that crime rates are spurred by many factors, such as demographics and the economy.

" 'Three strikes' is definitely doing something, though," Evans said. "The citizens of Orange County and [the district attorney's] office are concerned about crime and it's always good, of course, to hear there's a reduction.

Locally, Fullerton saw the largest decline in overall crimes reported, with a drop of 16%, while Santa Ana recorded the most significant decrease in violent crime, which was down 18.4%. Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters credited the decline in part to the opening of a local jail and the "three strikes" law, which cut into the time repeat offenders spend on the streets.

"I'm glad to see us as a state hardening our image," he said. "In the past California was not perceived as a tough-on-crime state, but that's changing."

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