To many people, the face of Polly Klaas is a reminder of a horrific moment in our nation’s history. For us — her sisters — Polly’s face represents a constellation of childhood memories that remain precious to us today. Those memories ended abruptly on Oct. 1, 1993, when a man followed Polly home from the park and took her from our bedroom.
To us, the trauma of Polly’s death was made all the more confusing and frightening by the media frenzy surrounding it. As children, we retreated from the public eye, hoping to heal and reclaim some sense of normalcy in our lives. As we grew older, however, we became aware of some of the legal and political changes that stemmed from Polly’s death. Galvanized by the fear felt by families and communities across the country, legislators began pushing for harsh sentencing laws.
The new laws were strongly supported by people across the political spectrum and by a prominent voice in our own family. The best known of the mandatory sentencing enhancement laws came to be known as “three strikes,” which aimed to keep people in prison for life after a third conviction for a serious offense.
Ostensibly, these laws were meant to prevent tragedies like our sister’s murder from being repeated. Yet many of the people who ended up with life sentences under three-strikes laws were convicted of nonviolent crimes — things such as stealing a bicycle, attempting to forge a check, breaking a church window or using drugs. The laws produced a misguided sentencing system benefiting the prison industry, whose survival depends on large numbers of incarcerated people serving extended sentences.
People imprisoned under three-strikes and other mandatory sentencing laws are overwhelmingly Black and Latino, and they are also often mentally ill or homeless. Over the last 26 years, three-strikes laws have significantly contributed to mass incarceration in the United States and have exacerbated the systemic racism inherent in our justice system.