SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Prosecutors and some legal experts yesterday hailed the California Legislature's passage of a bill requiring up to life in prison for first-time violent sex offenders, saying it will at least double the time most hard-core rapists spend behind bars and act as an effective deterrent to others.
But critics continued to question the effectiveness of the so-called one-strike measure, one of the most hotly debated crime bills of the year.
The bill is likely to give California one of the nation's toughest rape laws.
"I think this is going to have a definite impact," said Charles Nickel, a San Diego County deputy district attorney and specialist on sentencing rules. "In my view, the people won. We won. We got something good out of this."
Although the state already has tough sentencing rules in place for serial rapists, Nickel and other legal experts contend the one-strike bill's long sentences should deter some violent rapists and child molesters from continuing to commit sex crimes and put those who persist behind bars before they harm multiple victims.
"They'll either stop, leave the state or be locked up," said Nickel, who wrote a manual on prosecuting sex crimes that was distributed to district attorneys throughout the state. "All of that will help the public."
But civil libertarians and defense attorneys question the efficacy of the bill, which Gov. Pete Wilson has made a major plank in his re-election campaign and has promised to sign. Wilson's Democratic opponent, Kathleen Brown, also supports the bill as it was passed.
Critics maintain it will have little or no deterrent effect and worry that stiff penalties could be applied in cases where they are not warranted.
"The reality is people who commit crimes don't read the penal code," said Francisco Lobaco, the American Civil Liberties Union's state legislative director. "This is just part of the election-year mood of the legislature that started with the three-strikes law and has culminated with this one, with a litany of other sentencing enhancements in between."
As originally drafted by Republican state Sen. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach, the bill required that nearly all sex offenders be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The measure was widely attacked as so harsh it might hinder prosecutions or prompt rapists to kill their victims.
After extensively reworking the bill, the legislature approved a version calling for a penalty of 25 years to life for the most brutal sexual assaults - those involving torture, mayhem, kidnapping or burglary with the intent to commit rape.
Lesser sex crimes could earn sentences of 15 years to life but would have to include special circumstances such as the use of a dangerous weapon, more than one victim or administering narcotics.
Under current sentencing laws, a single incident of rape is punishable with eight years in prison, but most sex offenders are released after less than five years. Violent rapists also can get out earlier with good behavior.
Currently, a knife-wielding rapist typically ends up serving 6 1/2 years with good behavior. The same perpetrator sentenced under the one-strike formula would spend nearly 13 years behind bars, and then be freed only by a decision of a parole board. Those sentenced to the maximum term of 25 years to life wouldn't be eligible for parole for more than 21 years.
The one-strike bill won final approval Wednesday evening, and the Department of Corrections has yet to come up with an estimate of how many inmates it will add to the state prison system.