Born of Grief, ‘Three Strikes’ Laws Are Being Rethought

Mike Reynolds authored California's three-strikes law after his daughter, Kimber, was killed in a 1992 purse snatching. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Mike Reynolds authored California’s three-strikes law after his daughter, Kimber, was killed in a 1992 purse snatching. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

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, California, 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.

Polly Klaas

Polly Klaas

Two months would pass between Polly’s kidnapping on Oct. 1, 1993 — her two schoolmates were tied up, pillow cases put over their heads, and told to count to 1,000 during the crime — and the discovery on Dec. 4 of her decomposed body in a shallow grave near an abandoned lumber mill 30 miles north of Petaluma. In that time, her divorced father became a media celebrity on “20/20,” “America’s Most Wanted” and the like, begging for the return of “America’s Child.” (Marc Klaas remains a well-known child advocate, interviewed on television whenever a youngster goes missing.)

Back then, in the Polly Klaas Center, across from the police station in Petaluma, 4,000 volunteers stuffed envelopes and faxed eight million posters coast to coast, with photos of the child and a composite drawing of the 39-year-old bearded, thuggish suspect. A meticulous manhunt included 250 search-and-rescue workers, 40 law enforcement officers, motorcyclists, horseback riders, helicopters and divers to check nearby reservoirs. The actress Winona Ryder, who grew up in Petaluma, offered a $200,000 reward for the capture of yet another career criminal, Richard Allen Davis, and later dedicated the movie “Little Women” to Polly, whose favorite color was purple.

Outside the center, strangers built an impromptu mound of flowers, teddy bears, notes on composition paper and children’s books, including one called “If You’re Afraid of the Dark.” That mound would eventually become a shrine, like one years before for John Lennon and years after for Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr.

What I remember best, as The New York Times’s correspondent in San Francisco that long-ago autumn, were the billboards of a snub-nosed child along highways throughout Northern California, the nightly televised home videos of Polly in a sparkly costume, the bouquets of lavender rosebuds. 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.

jane-gross-200A 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 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.

Jane Gross
New York Times

About Jane Gross

ane Gross was a reporter for Sports Illustrated and Newsday before joining The New York Times in 1978. Her twenty-nine-year tenure there included national assignments as well as coverage of aging. In 2008, she launched a blog for the Times called The New Old Age, to which she still contributes. She has taught journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Columbia University, and was the recipient of a John S. Knight Fellowship. She lives in New York City, after almost 20 years in Westchester County, New York and lectures on topics related to aging in these times, enumerated in Bittersweet and The New Old Age. Ms. Gross is currently at work on her second book.