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California and the West

Checchi Urges More Funds for Crime Prevention

Politics: Saying GOP has overemphasized punishment, Democratic candidate calls for 10,000 new police officers, crackdown on guns, gangs.

January 25, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Hammering Republicans on an issue they have traditionally owned, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi called Saturday for a massive strengthening of crime prevention programs that he said are essential to prevent an upsurge in violence.

Speaking at Pasadena City College, Checchi said that Gov. Pete Wilson and his predecessor, George Deukmejian, have overemphasized punishment over prevention, ignoring long-term solutions in favor of building prisons.

"That is the legacy of four terms of Deukmejian and Wilson--a politics that refuses to take on the gun lobby, that overpromises and underfunds prevention and then denies police and prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on crime and crack down on gangs," Checchi said.

Checchi's prescriptions include hiring 10,000 new police officers statewide, sharply curtailing the availability of guns, doubling the juvenile crime prevention budget, cracking down on gangs, and making Head Start and other development programs available to all needy children.

A millionaire businessman making his first bid for elective office, Checchi repeatedly criticized "career politicians" for their handling of the crime problem and for prematurely celebrating the recent decline in the crime rate.

"We are not really safer, and we can't be satisfied, when 31 violent crimes are committed in California every hour of every day," he said, noting that a coming rise in the number of teenagers and young adults threatens an increase in crime.

He also insisted that improving the state's faltering education system is essential to curbing crime. But said he would not support either Wilson's or Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's educational reform initiatives on the grounds that they would deny the next governor flexibility.

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Checchi's speech stressed the connection between a frayed social safety net and criminal behavior, which was ironically similar to the approach taken by Wilson in the 1990 gubernatorial election. Then-candidate Wilson pledged support for a host of social programs aimed at salvaging endangered children--but once in office that approach was hamstrung by state deficits and the plunging economy. Since the economy has improved, Wilson has increased the budgets for children's programs.

Indeed, much of Checchi's address seemed tailored to the moderate voters--Republicans, Democrats and independents--who form the bulk of the California electorate.

He challenged the leadership of the National Rifle Assn., but took pains to appeal to the rank and file. He said he favored requiring trigger locks on all guns and the abolition of Saturday night specials, cheap firearms favored by criminals. He said he would sign a bill banning Saturday night specials like the one vetoed last year by Wilson.

He said all assault weapons and "cop-killer" bullets should be outlawed and that gun sellers should have to maintain records on every buyer.

"The rank-and-file members of the NRA are not the problem," he said. "They are law-abiding hunters, sportsmen and collectors who fully comprehend the difference between a 12-gauge shotgun and an assault weapon."

Many of his proposals are likely to be opposed by conservative Republicans as well as liberals within his own party. As he does in television commercials airing around the state, Checchi on Saturday reiterated his call for a broadening of the death penalty to include those convicted of more than one instance of rape or child molestation.

Checchi's Democratic primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, also favors capital punishment, which the party has traditionally opposed. Davis, like Checchi, has established a conservative image when it comes to crime.

Although Checchi criticized the two most recent governors by name, he did not take on either Davis or the Republican now running for governor, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. With a long record on law-and-order issues, Lungren plans to make crime a bulwark of his campaign.

Asked after his speech to assess Lungren's positions on crime, Checchi demurred and instead restated his broader criticisms of the state's leaders. He complimented the unnamed leaders for a "great job" of building prisons and increasing punishment--but said he would increase the number of battered women's shelters and children's enrichment programs.

"Our objective should be to eliminate crime, not simply to become great at capturing criminals," he said.

Many of Checchi's proposals carry a hefty price tag, particularly the addition of 10,000 police officers statewide and the creation of drug treatment programs for all prisoners and probationers who need them.

Checchi said those policies would pay for themselves by reducing the incidence of crime and recidivism. He said he did not know how much it would cost to make Head Start available to all needy children.

While blaming the state's education system for contributing to crime--because it graduates students unequipped for well-paying jobs--he said he opposes two proposed ballot measures meant to improve it.

Feinstein's measure would increase cigarette taxes by $1 per pack and use the money to reduce class sizes, raise teacher standards and lengthen the school year. Wilson is proposing a massive school construction measure that would raise $16 million over the next six years to handle growing enrollments.

Checchi said he opposes the tobacco tax hike in Feinstein's measure and believes that both proposals would tie the hands of the next governor by imposing rigid mandates on school operations.

He reiterated his opposition to a ballot measure that would essentially outlaw bilingual education, and said he opposes a Republican-backed measure that would bar labor unions from forcing members to donate to political causes.

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