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Sparring for Best Crime-Fighting Honors

While attacking one another's record, both Lungren and Davis embrace the three-strikes law. Ongoing clash doesn't produce many clear distinctions.


Crime may not be the biggest issue in the governor race this year, but it has generated some of the campaign's sharpest clashes and most inflated rhetoric.

The reason is simple. It is now a given in California politics that if you want to win the state's highest office you must convince voters you're tough on crime. At the very least, that means supporting the death penalty, longer sentences for criminals and crackdowns on drug dealers.

Even though the crime rate has been dropping for years, fear of crime is still high and potential voters say public safety is a pressing concern.

So it is no surprise that Dan Lungren, a Republican, is using his extensive anti-crime record--as a congressman and as California's attorney general since 1990--as a sword in the race. Lungren was one of the original supporters of the "Three Strikes and You're Out" ballot initiative overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 1994 and has repeatedly asserted that the law has played a key role in lowering the state's crime--an assertion challenged by a recent study to be published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review in November.

Additionally, Lungren has flayed his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, for actions he says show that Davis hasn't always supported the death penalty.

A Lungren television spot, starring the father of a teenage murder victim, reminds voters that Davis didn't support the three-strikes measure they enacted. And Lungren has a long list of endorsements from district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs up and down the state.

Davis, in turn, has strived to shield himself from Lungren's jabs by emphasizing his support of the death penalty, his advocacy of the three-strikes measure favored by the California District Attorneys Assn. and some noteworthy law enforcement endorsements, including the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.. Leaders of some of these unions said they are supporting Davis in no small measure because he favors binding arbitration in their labor negotiations, an approach Lungren opposes.

Davis also has gone on the attack, contending that Lungren has failed to enforce a state weapons law and "allowed more than 16,000 illegal assault weapons on our streets."

Moreover, in an attempt to deflect Lungren's charges that he is not the hard-line crime foe he wants voters to think he is, Davis went so far as to say in one debate that "Singapore is a good starting point in terms of law and order"--referring to a country that has no juries, canes individuals for spraying graffiti and executes people for a wide range of narcotics offenses.

"If I ever made a statement like that, the press would hang me from the highest tree and suggest that I was a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal," Lungren said in an interview. He clearly is frustrated that Davis, so far, has been able to say "me too" on criminal justice issues that Lungren considers the centerpiece of his two decades in public service.

To date, Lungren's sword does not appear to have pierced Davis' shield. The clashes between the two have not produced clear distinctions in this realm.

And some analysts maintain that the campaign has not illuminated what sort of crime-fighting strategy works best.

Two professors, Linda S. Beres of Loyola Law School and Thomas D. Griffith of USC Law School, will publish a study in the November issue of the Loyola Law Review saying Lungren overstated the impact of the three-strikes law in a March report. The report said the law is primarily responsible for the "largest overall drop in crime over any four-year period in [California] history."

The professors' study says, "There is no evidence that three strikes played an important role in the drop in the crime rate" between 1994 and 1996 (data for 1997 were incomplete, something the Lungren report acknowledges, and the professors did not include that year). Lungren's chief spokesman, Rob Stutzman, took issue with that conclusion, maintaining that California "has had a historic drop in crime" since the three-strikes law was passed in 1994 and that it is simply "common sense" that there is a relationship between the statute and the crime decline.

The law, passed partly in reaction to the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat offender, doubled the usual sentence for a second felony conviction and imposed a minimum 25-year sentence for third felonies--regardless of their nature--if the earlier convictions are for violent or serious crimes.

In 1994, Davis, along with numerous district attorneys, favored a less stringent version than the one Lungren supported. It would have sprung into effect only if the third strike was a serious or violent felony.

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