Jury is still out on effectiveness of California's 'get tough on crime' law

Nearly six months after the nation's most sweeping get-tough-on-crime bill went into effect in California, lawyers and judges are still largely waiting for the effect.

Observers note that sentences given career criminals seem to be getting longer. But it remains to be seen whether the young law will result in more criminal convictions and more cases going to court. Such trends are taking longer to emerge.

Proposition 8, dubbed the ''Victims' Bill of Rights,'' was the brainchild of conservative activists Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis, who brought California Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax-slashing measure.

And Prop. 8 may be to criminal justice across the country what Prop. 13 was to property tax rates - a rallying point for those unhappy with the status quo.

The new anticrime law: loosens evidence rules so that any evidence admissible in court under federal law is admissible in California; bans plea bargaining for serious crimes at the Superior Court level; demands that five years be added to felony sentences for every previous felony the defendant has been convicted of; and directs the Legislature to direct the courts to seek the victim's opinion in determining restitution.

Mr. Gann avers that laws like Prop. 8 will take hold around the country. As a sort of populist-at-large, lobbying in Sacramento, in Washington, D.C, and elsewhere, Gann sums it up simply: ''People in this country are tired of running from criminals.''

There is in fact a steady stream of state legislation around the country to toughen crime laws - loosening up rules on courtroom evidence, banning pretrial release of possibly dangerous defendants, abolishing parole, restricting the insanity defense, restricting plea bargaining, restoring death penalties, setting mandatory sentences for certain crimes, and more.

At the the same time, the White House is embarking on a drive to reform federal criminal law along much the same lines.

New Jersey has a ''Victim's Bill of Rights'' in legislative committee now, although this bill has much more to do with the actual treatment of victims than does California's version.

''If there was ever a time when major changes in the criminal justice system could come about,'' says Tom Smith, assistant director of the American Bar Association's criminal justice section in Washington, D.C., ''now is the time.''

So far, effects of California's omnibus measure are just beginning to seep into the system, slowed by judges who are uncertain of the new legal ground until they get more guidance from high-court decisions, and district attorneys who don't want to risk important cases with untried law.

''The impact has not been as dramatic - at least yet - as many people had supposed,'' says Steve White, who is executive director of the California District Attorneys Association.

On the other hand, Jeff Brown, incoming president of the California Public Defenders Association, admits, ''Most of the horror stories haven't come true.''

Prop. 8 was enacted by popular vote in June and took effect Oct. 2, when the state Supreme Court upheld it against the charge that it was too sweeping and violated the one-subject rule for propositions.

Get-tough crime legislation has been coming out of the California Legislature since around 1975, when present Gov. George Deukmejian introduced his use-a-gun, go-to-prison bill.

''It may be coming to a head now,'' says Bill Pannell of the state Board of Prison Terms. State polls do in fact show concern over crime on the wane from a year ago, and Governor Deukmejian recently commented, for the first time in his career, that he felt penalties were stiff enough now.

But as an upshot to this anticrime sentiment, says Mr. Brown, ''Pretty much everybody who should be in jail is already there.'' The impact of Prop. 8 has not been to put more people in jail, but rather to pull stiffer sentences for career criminals.

''What it's saying,'' says Gann, ''is that if you're a hood in this state and you do something wrong, you're going to get in trouble.''

''Just based on what I see, it is resulting in longer sentences,'' observes San Francisco County presiding Judge Edward Stern. He also notes that the Superior Courts appear to be handling more serious cases now than before the proposition. Since defendants in less serious cases have no option to plea bargain at the Superior Court level, they do their negotiating earlier in the game. It is too early to determine the law's effect on court caseloads.

Different judges handle the proposition differently, as they wait for decisions to come down. Bill Sheffield, a Superior Court judge in Orange County, says he views a statutory amendment passed by the Legislature last August as having undone Prop. 8's changes in the rules for evidence. The legislative consultant who wrote the statute insists that was not the intention at all.

''There's a lot of uncertainty among judges,'' says attorney Paul Moore, who will be defending comedian Flip Wilson in May on drug charges before the state high court. That case could become a major test of Prop. 8 evidence rules.

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