These Two Murders Helped Turn America Into The Prison Capital Of The World

Polly KlaasAP PhotoPolly Klaas

The documentary project Retro Report has an incisive new video examining how two murders in California helped spur the entire country to adopt controversial “three strikes and you’re out” laws.

These harsh laws — also known as “mandatory minimums” — force judges to mete out harsh sentences regardless of mitigating factors like addiction or mental illness. Insanely long prison sentences are part of the reason the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world.

So how did America get to be so ridiculously tough on crime? Momentum began to build to put away so-called “repeat offenders” after the murders of 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds in 1992 and 12-year-old Polly Klaas a year later.

Reynolds was gunned down in her hometown of Fresno, Calif., when she had returned to be a bridesmaid in a wedding, the Los Angeles Times reported. Her killer, a 25-year-old man named Joe Davis, had been jailed repeatedly for drugs, auto theft, and gun crimes.

After her death, her father Mike Reynolds, began lobbying for a measure known as “Three Stikes and You’re Out.”

“At some point, somebody had to do something to keep this from happening again,” Reynolds told Retro Report.

His measure started gathering steam after 12-year-old Klaas was murdered by another repeat offender, Richard Allen Davis, who had a long rap sheet that included kidnapping. Gun homicide had peaked that year, and people across America were afraid and angry.

Reynolds’ “Three Strikes and You’re Out” measure — which doubled and tripled sentences and limited parole — became a “rallying cry” for change, The New York Times reported back in 1993. From the Times story:

Frightened by the spread of random violence in their neighborhoods, struck by how often those crimes are committed by repeat offenders and frustrated by what they consider legislative inaction, California voters are signing petitions for the Reynolds measure at the rate of 15,000 a day.

“Three Strikes” had its opponents, however. Gil Garcetti — who was district attorney in Los Angeles in the ’90s — didn’t like the idea of locking up low-level offenders forever. He pointed out to Retro Report that men tend to commit fewer crimes as they age, so it just doesn’t make sense to keep older guys locked up.

“Even though I spoke out strongly,” Garcetti told Retro Report, “we were drowned out.”

By 1996, 24 states and the federal government had all embraced “Three Strikes” laws. 10 years after the law passed in California, nearly half of the three strikes inmates were serving 25 years to life for nonviolent crimes, according to Retro Report. Nationwide, more than 3,000 nonviolent offenders are currently serving life without the possibility of parole.

Violent criminals like the ones who killed Reynolds and Klaas should certainly be locked up to protect the public. But long sentences, particularly life sentences, for nonviolent offenders are arguably inhumane. They’re also costly: A quarter of the Justice Department’s budget for 2013 is spent on prisons.

After the recession states including California began reforming their tough sentencing regimes — in part to save money. After sentencing reform was enacted, violence did not erupt in these states, Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, told Business Insider.

This suggests “incarceration doesn’t line up with public safety,” Price noted.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently stepped in and ordered the Justice Department to stop enforcing mandatory minimums. His decision has zero impact in people who are already locked up under mandatory minimums, but it’s a sign that the government recognises “three strikes” laws just don’t make sense.

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