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Bergeson's '1 Strike' Bill Clears Assembly

August 31, 1994|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Tackling a heated election-year issue that sparked an emotional fight in the governor's race, the Assembly approved an Orange County lawmaker's bill Tuesday that would put first-time child molesters and violent rapists in prison for as long as 25 years to life.

The Assembly voted 73 to 0 for the so-called "one strike" bill carried by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), sending it to the Senate for a final vote today.

Although the measure was dramatically softened during the journey through the Legislature, Bergeson continued to portray it as one of the toughest sex crime laws in the nation.

"California will have a stern response to violent sex offenders," she said after the Assembly vote. "They're not going to be given a second chance. This is a responsible solution to society's most heinous of crimes."

Assembly Democrats played down the role of Republicans in drafting the measure. During floor debate, Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco) called the original measure a "dumb bill" and argued that Democrats were largely responsible for fixing it during committee hearings.

The bill's chances for passage improved dramatically when it was hitched earlier this month to sex crime bills carried by several Democrats. Gov. Pete Wilson, who has made the measure a plank in his reelection campaign, has promised to sign it.

When first proposed, the bill called for a blanket sentence of life without the possibility of parole for nearly all sex offenses.

That tough stance drew broad attacks from civil libertarians and other groups, including some district attorneys and women's organizations, who said the measure was so harsh it might actually hinder prosecutions or prompt rapists to kill their victims.

After an aborted attempt to push the measure through the Senate, Bergeson redrafted the bill to delete references to life without parole, substituting a penalty of 25 years to life for most serious offenses.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee, a traditional graveyard for GOP anti-crime measures, narrowed Bergeson's bill still further earlier this month by requiring that only the most brutal sexual assaults--those involving torture, mayhem, kidnaping or burglary with the intent to commit rape--would result in the maximum sentence.

Lesser crimes could still earn sentences of 15 years to life, but would have to include special circumstances, such as the use of a firearm or dangerous weapon, more than one victim or the administering of narcotics.

Bergeson began carrying the bill at the behest of Wilson, who has made the rape measure a centerpiece of his election-year fight on crime. A few weeks ago, the bill sparked a bitter dispute between the governor and Democrat challenger Kathleen Brown over her stance on the proposal.

Wilson aired a television commercial in late July portraying Brown as opposed to the "one strike" bill. Brown countered by calling Wilson's advertisement "a despicable lie," arguing that she dropped her opposition to the bill after it was narrowed in the Senate.

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