Californians Talk Tough on Crime

Summit stresses urgency of problem, highlights gap in ways to solve it

CRIME hovers at the top of California's political agenda, but there are as many different ideas on how to deal with violence as there are cop shows on TV. OK, not quite as many.

The predominant mood seems to call for tougher sentences and a wider thin blue line on the street. Many people, though, stress more restrictive gun laws and more prevention, so that there is less crime to begin with.

There are the usual calls for reinforcing families, reforming welfare laws that encourage dependency on the government dole, and revamping juvenile justice laws. Then there is Mimi Halper Silbert.

The president of a foundation that works with ex-convicts, she says there is too much emphasis on ``extremes'' - locking up prisoners and throwing away the key, or being too lenient because they had a bad upbringing.

``We have no center position,'' says the head of the Delancey Street Foundation, which operates self-help centers for ex-offenders, addicts, and prostitutes in California and elsewhere. ``Extremes only work with certain people.''

Just how urgent the crime issue is and some gulfs that must be bridged before a solution is fashioned in the most populous state were evident at a two-day crime ``summit'' here this week.

The conclave was called by Gov. Pete Wilson (R), a tough, longtime law-and-order advocate who oversaw the meeting that reflected a lot of tough law-and-order sentiment. There were, for instance, calls for more police, prisons, parole laws with ``teeth,'' ``zero'' tolerance of guns on school campuses, and, above all, harsher punishments - particularly for repeat offenders.

Ideas for social programs

But there were few suggestions for social programs to deal with crime's underpinnings, more school programs that teach ways to reduce conflicts nonviolently, and ways to empower citizen groups to deal with violence.

These ideas aren't mutually exclusive. But in an era of tight resources - particularly in California - there will be fights over funding and priorities, not to mention ideologies, as wish lists are translated into bills in Sacramento. Thus, many observers believe that the main impact of such meetings is to put an accent on the issue.

``The best thing it can do is start a dialogue in which the hard right, which wants to lock up criminals and throw away the key, and the hard left, which wants social welfare programs, will understand there is a middle out there concerned about crime,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. ``The worst that could come out of it is that everybody just postures, and nothing is done.''

Underscoring the importance of public safety will do nothing to hurt Mr. Wilson politically. Law and order has been a theme of his past campaigns and is again now, as he faces an uphill fight to retain his job.

Even as the GOP governor was moderating the closing session Tuesday, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D) was jetting about announcing her candidacy. She joins state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi (D), who has already launched his bid.

Both lead Wilson by healthy margins in early polls. But, to the extent that crime remains a big issue, it is expected to help him. Though Wilson supporters dismiss the idea that the summit was a campaign event, they don't hide their glee that the public is focused on crime. ``It is Pete Wilson's issue,'' a gubernatorial aide says.

Some of the most emotional testimony to emerge from the conference came from crime victims and their family members. Many victims-rights groups are strong backers of the governor. Most support stiffer sentences for violent offenders.

That means, in particular, ``three strikes and you're out'' proposals that would give life sentences to criminals who have committed three violent felonies, something the governor and much of the California public backs.

ACLU takes exception

One exception is Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who, like some scholars, argues that such moves don't deter crime, would overburden the prison system, and could lead to people being locked up for life for minor infractions, like writing a bad check on a third offense.

To which, Steve Baker, whose son was murdered, replied: ``We have met the enemy, and Ms. Ripston ... you are it.''

There were other cautions raised about tough approaches on crime, but not many. San Diego Superior Court Judge Harry Elias noted that imposing life sentences on child molesters, which Wilson has also proposed, could backfire. He argued that people may be less likely to report such crimes because of the severity of the punishment.

One of the few other areas of disagreement - guns - drew varying calls for controls and no controls. These and other issues will be thrashed out in the Legislature, which faces a defining year on crime. While lawmakers debate, many local groups are quietly making a difference on their own:

* San Fernando Valley high school students have formed WARN (Weapons Are Removed Now) that helps rid campuses of guns and finds positive ways to overcome violence.

* Parents patrol the grounds of Sacramento's Kennedy High School, a move that has improved safety and led to other changes on campus.

* A program run by police, probation officers, and prosecutors in Westminster has led to a 57 percent drop in gang violence in two years.

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