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Violent Crime Rises 8.4%, Lungren Says : Offenses: The increase follows decade of declines. Attorney general urges tougher sentences, but critics say tactic wouldn't work.

January 22, 1992|PAUL JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Violent crime in California rose 8.4% last year, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said Tuesday in a speech calling for increased penalties for offenders.

The preliminary statistics cited by Lungren, which compared the first 10 months of 1991 to the same period the year before, suggest an alarming increase in criminal activity after a decade of general decline.

Crimes of all sorts increased by 5.7%, Lungren said, citing statistics culled from 44 law enforcement agencies, which cover almost half of the state's population.

Robberies were up by almost 10% in these jurisdictions, which include some of the largest police forces in the state. Assaults were up by about 8%, homicides by 3.6% and forcible rapes by 3%.

These increases compare to a decrease of 13% in all crime in California between 1980 and 1990, according to the state Department of Justice. Between 1989 and 1990, the rate went down by about 0.5%, department statistics show.

Delivering what he called his first "state of the public safety" speech since taking office a year ago, Lungren said the way to counter the problem was to get even tougher on crime by increasing prison time, creating boot camps for gang members and arming police and prosecutors with tools that federal authorities already have, such as the ability to tap phones and to seize a criminal's assets.

These and other steps, Lungren argued, are needed if the state is to reclaim what he called a "landscape scarred and poisoned by unacceptable levels of violent crime."

But critics questioned whether Lungren's proposals would have much impact on the crime rate in a state that has already increased sentences for most crimes and more than tripled its prison population over the last decade.

"Sentences have been increased in the last three years across the board for violent crimes," said Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco), who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee. "There's never necessarily been a correlation between an increase in crime with an increase or a decrease in criminal penalties. . . . Penalties have gone up dramatically in the past 15 or 20 years and crime has gone up dramatically in the last 15 or 20 years."

James Austin, who directs research for the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency, generally agreed with Burton. "All these measures try to get tougher, when we're already extremely tough," Austin said. "Even more efforts to do that are going to have even more diminishing returns on the crime rate."

Austin is among those criminologists who believe that rising national crime rates are tied to worsening economic conditions and to the growth in the number of men 15 to 24, the age group most likely to commit crimes.

Long-term solutions, Austin said, require "raising children differently from the way they are raised now." He said approaches that might have an impact on crime, such as improving literacy and expanding programs such as Head Start, won't show results for 10 years and are not popular among politicians seeking more immediate results.

In his wide-ranging speech, Lungren pointed to example after example of ordinary people cut down by senseless violence, including a 14-month-old Willowbrook girl, Michelle Jones, a victim of a drive-by shooting.

"Strong deterrence and incarceration work," Lungren insisted. "Our best hope for reducing violent crime is to take more criminals off the streets, put them behind bars and keep them there longer."

To improve law enforcement's effectiveness Lungren wants to build more prisons and is backing a variety of changes in state law, many of them intended to duplicate existing federal statutes.

For example, Lungren wants California law enforcement officers to have the same power that federal prosecutors have to seek court approval to tap phones and record private conversations. Current state law allows such wiretaps only against drug dealers, and even then prosecutors are not allowed to use evidence of other crimes obtained from such taps in court.

The attorney general also wants to broaden the ability of state prosecutors to seize profits from criminal activities and prosecute criminals for money laundering and racketeering.

He also is calling for legislation to increase penalties for those caught selling drugs or carrying firearms within 1,000 feet of a school. In addition, every school in the state would be required to develop a safety plan to protect students and workers from criminal activity.

Lungren said that a number of school districts around the state have considered the use of metal detectors to stop weapons from being carried onto campuses. He said that he and his staff have reviewed the constitutionality of these proposals and that he is advising school districts that the use of these devices is legal, just as it is at airports and outside of courtrooms.

A number of Lungren's proposals are aimed at combatting gang violence, including tougher penalties for gang graffiti and curfew laws for juveniles.

He also is proposing that selected gang members be put into special boot camps that would impose discipline while preparing the youngsters for jobs on their release.

A similar program is being tested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and it appears to be successful, according to criminologist Austin.

"The program is very successful in increasing reading levels, finding them jobs and making them physically fit," said Austin. "But the problem is that nobody uses the program."

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