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TEEN GRAFFITI VANDALS COULD FACE PADDLING

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Half a century ago, when he was a smart-mouthed teenager, Mickey Conroy learned to respect his elders by trudging to the principal's office and getting paddled on the behind.

Later, as a young parent, Conroy taught his children the same lesson by hanging a belt from the back of a door, rarely using it but pointing to it menacingly from time to time.Now, as a state assemblyman from conservative Orange County, Conroy is hoping to discipline all of California's children with the threat of a timely wallop. And his efforts have made him something of a folk hero in this crime-weary state.

Inspired by the caning of an American teenager in Singapore and encouraged by an electorate fed up with offenses petty as well as violent, Conroy, a 66-year-old Republican, has introduced a bill that would allow judges to punish young graffiti vandals by sentencing them to as many as 10 whacks with a hardwood paddle, administered by their parents or a bailiff in open court.

The bill, which would have been considered a hobbyhorse without chances in years past, is making surprising progress in the Democratic-controlled Legislature this political season, when measures to stiffen criminal sentences, impose new punishments and limit prisoners' rights are the rage from coast to coast.

"It's a reflection of this pell-mell attitude of the public, this steamroller," said Mervin Field, California's leading pollster.

Field said the paddling bill would have produced "a few chuckles" and no support in past legislative sessions. "But now," he said, "it's damn the cost, damn the reverberations. We just can't be seen as anything less than punitive."

James Q. Wilson, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is a frequent lecturer, said he had never before encountered audiences so "deeply disturbed" by "the inability of society and the criminal justice system to control young people," whether they be teenage taggers or juvenile killers.

And in their frustration, Wilson said, Americans have turned to "novel sanctions" like paddling, which is also under consideration in San Antonio and St. Louis, and to other kinds of what he deems draconian sentences like those prescribed by the new "three strikes and you're out" law in California.

Conroy wrote his paddling bill after Michael Fay, an 18-year-old from Ohio, was lashed with a brine-soaked rattan cane in Singapore in May for spray-painting cars. The boy's punishment drew protests from President Clinton and American editorialists, but much of the American citizenry let loose a torrent of approval in calls to talk-show hosts and responses to public-opinion pollsters.

Caning may be far more painful - and its effects, from scars, more lasting - than anything that even Conroy would sanction. But the Singapore punishment was an inspiration.

Under the Conroy bill, judges would be empowered to sentence teenage graffiti vandals to as many as 10 whacks on the clothed buttocks, in addition to whatever other penalty was imposed.

The beating would take place in the courtroom, administered by either a bailiff or a parent of the offender, using a hardwood paddle three-quarters of an inch thick, with an 18-by-6-inch paddling area and a 6-inch handle. The name of the vandal would be made available for publication, in the hope that humiliation of either child or parent would be a deterrent.