How the 1993 murder of a child galvanized the “Three Strike” Laws

December 3rd, 2013

The Times reports on how a 1993 murder of a child gave birth to the abomination to Justice that are the “Three Strike” laws. Reason again not to pass laws in the hazy aftermath of tragedies.

To most of the world – back in 1992 and even now — Mike Reynolds’s effort to keep repeat violent offenders locked up for life after the murder of his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, in Fresno, Calif., was a non-event, not the opening salvo of what would become a barrage of state laws and referendums eventually known as the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” movement.

Mr. Reynolds, a wedding photographer in California’s Central Valley, far from the media centers of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, was just a grieving father (could there be a less empathetic phrase?), whose youngest child, on a weekend visit home from college, had been shot in the head at point-blank range outside the Daily Planet restaurant by a man with a long criminal record.

Mr. Reynolds’s howl of helplessness took the form of a ballot initiative, Proposition 184, which called for sentences of 25 years to life for anyone previously convicted of two serious felonies. Mr. Reynolds began a lonely campaign to gain the necessary 385,000 signatures to put it before voters in a state with a long and often misguided history of governing by popular outrage rather than carefully created legislation. But Mr. Reynolds had only a shoestring budget, a small band of neighborhood volunteers who met in his living room, no nationwide attention and little hope of success until another dreadful crime galvanized the state, nation and world a year later.

That was the abduction at knifepoint and eventual murder of a dimpled 12-year-old, Polly Klaas, 4 feet 10 inches tall and 80 pounds, during a slumber party right down the hall from her sleeping mother’s bedroom. It occurred in the quaint Sonoma County hamlet of Petaluma, scene of President Ronald Reagan’s “Mornings in America” television commercials. …

Not until I reread my own articles did I remember that it was after Polly’s death that Mr. Reynolds’s sluggish signature-gathering effort took off. That first weekend, at the urging of a local radio station, so many people called the modest Fresno headquarters of Three Strikes and You’re Out that the voice-mail system crashed. Within weeks, the petition had been signed by the required number of people, eventually by 800,000, and would pass by a wide margin.

A few noted criminologists predicted at the time that “three strikes” laws, which would sweep the nation, were unlikely to have much effect on crime, would fill the nation’s prisons to bursting and would satisfy frustrated voters at the expense of bad public policy. They were largely ignored. As this Retro Report points out, California voters eventually concluded that its three strikes law was excessive in its zeal and financial burden, and last year they amended the law that Mr. Reynolds had put before them two decades earlier.