SACRAMENTO -- A year after bringing to California Jessica’s Law, the crackdown on sex offenders, the husband-and-wife team of state Sen. George Runner and Assemblywoman Sharon Runner announced Monday a new initiative that would target gang members for tougher prosecution and dedicate nearly $1 billion annually to enforcement and intervention.
The Republican legislators from Lancaster hope to collect enough signatures to qualify the measure for the November 2008 ballot, and they have the backing of the father of the state’s three-strikes law as well as law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
However, the measure drew immediate opposition from other lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).
George Runner said gang violence in Los Angeles and other big cities has reached “epidemic” levels and requires a new approach.
“Law-abiding citizens have had it with rampant gang violence in their communities,” Runner said. “It’s time to restore peace and take back our neighborhoods, and this measure has the ingredients do just that.”
However, some lawmakers and others criticized the initiative as warmed-over legislation previously rejected by the Legislature, as well as significantly increasing spending mandates in a state already having trouble balancing its budget.
“It’s unfortunate that they are playing on the fears of the public and stoking the fires of wedge politics,” said Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for Perata.
One of the most controversial aspects of the initiative would set aside $600 million in existing public safety funding and prevent it from being used for other programs unless it were approved by a three-fourths vote of the Legislature. It also would add $340 million to the funds dedicated to fight and prevent gangs.
Some of the money would go toward providing electronic monitoring equipment to allow police to watch and track gang members, and also would provide mentoring to gang members on parole.
“We are just prioritizing public safety,” George Runner said. “The Legislature has always tended to abuse or use public safety dollars for other purposes.”
However, Gledhill said Runner was one of the lawmakers who refused to vote for the state budget this year because he felt it contained too much spending.
Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Nunez, called the plan “ballot-box budgeting which will put even more pressure on our already crowded prisons.”
Provisions of the initiative include:
Creating a nine-member Early Intervention and Rehabilitation Commission to evaluate and make recommendations on existing and future gang-reduction programs.
Increasing by 10 years the sentence given convicted felons caught with guns.
Requiring that convicted gang offenders register with local law enforcement each year for five years after conviction or their release from custody.
Allowing admission of sworn statements by gang crime witnesses who have died or who are unavailable to testify at the time of prosecution because of intimidation.
Increasing penalties for individuals who provide contraband to gang members in prison.
Authorizing the seizure of cars in which a gun is found that was used during the commission of a crime by the registered owner.
Prohibiting bail for illegal immigrants charged with violent gang crimes.
The initiative, titled “The Safe Neighborhoods Act: Protect Crime Victims, Stop Gangs and Thugs,” was endorsed by Baca and other law enforcement officials.
“Street gangs are largely responsible for increases in California homicides in recent years,” the sheriff said. “Their willful violence and destruction has quickly eroded many communities, and it is time we reversed this trend.”
The measure also was endorsed by Mike Reynolds, author of California’s three-strikes law.
But some state lawmakers say the gang issue has already been the subject of much legislation. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger two weeks ago signed five bills targeting gang violence, including creation of a state office to coordinate the war on gangs.
Lawmakers are also worried that the measure would create the same kinds of significant costs that have come with enforcing Jessica’s Law, which voters approved last year and which requires the state to restrict and monitor the movement of sex offenders released from prison.
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) called the initiative a “gimmick” to get conservative voters out for the presidential election in November 2008.
A spokesman for the governor said his office was still analyzing the proposal and had not taken a position.
Supporters of the initiative need to collect 435,000 signatures by April 2008 to qualify for the November 2008 ballot.