CALIFORNIA is considering crossing a new - and, critics say, dangerous - threshold in its move to get tough on criminals.
Fresh from passing a ``three strikes and you're out'' law, state lawmakers are now about to take up a measure that would put rapists and child molesters behind bars for life after their first conviction.
It would be the harshest such penalty in the nation.
While supporters believe it would help curb heinous offenses, critics say a ``one strike'' law would increase incarceration costs, result in more leniency in some cases, and increase the risk of innocent people being put away for life.
``It is essentially criminology by public-opinion poll,'' says Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
The din over the one-strike law mirrors a national debate over what is effective and appropriate punishment in an era of rising concern about crime. It is one more sign that rehabilitation, a mantra of the 1960s and 1970s, no longer seems part of the discourse, at least when it comes to repeat offenders.
Many concerns about the latest measure are similar to those raised about three-strike laws, which mandate life in prison without parole for three-time violent felons. California has started applying such a law, and many other states are considering them.
The new legislation comes at an emotional time for crime issues in California. Residents of rural Modoc County are still chafing over placement of a serial rapist on parole at a prison camp in their area.
In leafy Claremont, residents protested when a convicted rapist was supposed to be paroled to their community. He ended up failing a psychiatric test and now remains behind bars. Even the slaying of two Japanese students in San Pedro, though involving a different type of crime, carjacking, has added to public emotionalism over violence and may buttress chances of get-tough legislation in Sacramento.
The one-strike bill has been introduced in the Legislature by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R). It is due to come up for its first hearing as early as today. It is championed by Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who trumpeted its virtues across the state last week and has made crime a central part of his reelection campaign.
The bill would mandate life sentences for convicted rapists and child molesters who used force or exhibited ``substantial sexual conduct.'' Supporters say the bill is needed because many who commit sexual crimes are repeat offenders and rarely respond to rehabilitation. ``I don't think we should have to wait for the next victim to be raped or molested,'' says Ms. Bergeson.
At a recent stop in Orange County, with rape and molestation victims at his side, Mr. Wilson declared: ``These victims do a life sentence. It's simply not fair for their perpetrators to be out in a matter of months, which some of them can under the current law.''
But many criminologists and others argue the bill could produce the opposite effect of its intent: Because of the severity of the punishment, there would be more plea bargains, and juries might acquit if they thought the penalty was too high.
At the same time, people who were assaulted by friends or family - as is often the case in rape and molestation attacks - would be reluctant to file charges, knowing possible consequences.
For this reason, some prosecutors privately oppose the measure. Even state Attorney General Dan Lungren (R), hard-nosed on crime issues, has expressed reservations about the breadth of the bill. That also goes for some women groups, that, nevertheless, have made stemming sexual assault a prime focus.
``At this point, we will testify against the legislation,'' says Elizabeth Toledo, president of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women. ``It will be harder to get convictions.''
Some criminologists point out that the two crimes have among the highest rates of false arrests, increasing the chances of innocent people being put away for life. They argue that the stiffer sentences will do nothing to deter rapists and molesters, who often act out of psychological compulsions rather than rational impulses.
One other concern: Facing life imprisonment, child molesters and rapists might be more inclined to kill victims they kidnap - to ensure that victims couldn't testify against them.
``It is really silly to see child molestation as equal to murder,'' says Norval Morris, a prominent criminologist at the University of Chicago.
How the measure will do is uncertain. Some people expressed similar reservations about the three-strikes law, but the publicly popular measure zipped through the state Legislature.
An early sign will come in the state Senate Judiciary Committee this week, which will also be considering a Wilson-backed bill to impose life sentences on certain first-time arsonists.
Dr. Zimring says of the get-tough measures: ``I think the politics of crime has turned the governor into a genuine monster.''