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'One Strike' Sex Offense Measure Draws Praise, Scorn : Politics: The bill, carried by state Sen. Marian Bergeson, would put rapists, child molesters behind bars for life after the first conviction. Critics say it might produce unintended effects.

April 10, 1994|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The awful facts are straightforward, simple. She was the victim of a brutal rape. The assailant was caught and convicted on 28 counts involving 11 different women. He received 153 years in prison.

But it's Catherine Christie who feels like the one serving a life sentence.

Even as the Orange County woman continues to salve the emotional wounds she suffered in the 1988 attack, her anger has grown over society's attitude toward rape. Though her attacker will probably never leave prison, Christie learned that such stiff sentences are the exception rather than the rule in California, where rapists average less than five years behind bars.

"Like others, I will live with the effects of this rape for the rest of my life," Christie said. "It only seems fair that perpetrators should face the same consequences."

She might soon get her wish. Buffeted by gusts of anti-crime sentiment sweeping the state in this election year, the Legislature is considering a "one strike" measure that would put rapists and child molesters behind bars for life after a first conviction. It would be the strictest such penalty in the nation.

The bill, carried by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) at the behest of Gov. Pete Wilson, has been championed forcefully by victims of rape and molestation such as Christie, who came forward with several others last week to provide compelling personal testimony at a televised Capitol public hearing.

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The Times' policy is not to identify rape victims, but Christie's name is being used in this story--with her permission--after she was publicly identified at the hearing.

While Christie and other boosters suggest a "one strike" law would mete out an appropriate penalty and could help begin to curb rape and molestation, opponents contend the proposal goes too far, representing a dangerous precedent as the state and nation grapple with how best to get tough on crime.

Critics argue that Bergeson's bill would send incarceration costs skyrocketing and, in cases of date rape or incest, have a chilling effect on victims, witnesses, jurors or even prosecutors--potentially making it more difficult to put sex offenders behind bars.

They also say the measure blindly boosts penalties to the limit instead of carefully ratcheting up sentences for varying sex crimes, which run the gamut from lewd behavior to the most savage of rapes.

"This isn't the drafting of penal law, this is the crayoning in of punishments on an apparently arbitrary basis," said Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at UC Berkeley. "Penal law reform has become a branch of the theater of the absurd."

Most critics blame the effort on election-year politics and pent-up public rage over crime. And in recent weeks, rape has became a top story.

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A public outcry erupted last month over the parole of Melvin Carter, a serial rapist eventually released in rural Modoc County. In Claremont, residents protested plans to parole a convicted rapist in their community; their hopes were answered at least temporarily when he flunked a psychiatric test and was kept behind bars.

Wilson absorbed a dose of public abuse for the Carter parole but has used the "one strike" bill as a powerful retort. When gubernatorial opponent Kathleen Brown blamed him for Carter's release, Wilson responded with a television commercial ripping the Democrat for misunderstanding California parole law and citing the "one strike" bill as proof he is tough on crime.

Of late, the Republican governor has barnstormed the state touting the "one strike" bill to boost both his crime credentials and his stock with women voters.

But some women's groups, most notably the National Organization for Women, say the "one strike" measure would make rape reporting and convictions less likely. Wilson stalwarts, meanwhile, suggest NOW's opposition stems from a different motivation--the group has endorsed Brown in the race for governor.

Whatever the motivations, critics contend the "one strike" bill remains an election-year caricature of careful legislation.

"The bottom line is that politicians feed on crime hysteria to help themselves get elected," said Francisco Lobaco, the American Civil Liberties Union's state legislative director. "That's the unfortunate reality of the day."

Opponents tried to water down the Bergeson bill during last week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) attempted to add language drawn from Democratic legislation that would essentially make only the most heinous crimes subject to a "one strike" penalty of life in prison. An uneasy Bergeson pulled the bill back and asked for more time to work with opponents.

"People are legitimately concerned about public safety and tired of repeat offenders who seem to be inadequately punished," Lockyer said a few days later. "But I want the Legislature to produce a statute that's appropriate and not overreact because it's fashionable (to pass harsh crime laws) in an election year."

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