Gavel leaning against a row of law books

A Return to Soft on Crime?

In 1993, Richard Allen Davis, an ex-con with an 11-page rap sheet, broke into a Petaluma home, kidnapped Polly Klaas, 12, then strangled her to death.

It was a horrific crime — a sweet child snatched during a slumber party so that she could die at the hands of a random pervert — that so outraged California voters that they passed a three-strikes sentencing law in 1994. Soft on crime? After Polly Klaas, that label didn’t stick to California for years.

Davis pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and attempted lewd act on a minor. A jury sentenced him to death.

Now the pendulum is shifting toward the punishment-lite side, and Davis could be a beneficiary.

A California Senate committee recently passed Senate Bill 94, which would allow inmates sentenced to death or life without parole to apply for a “second look” at their cases. If it becomes law, the worst offenders could walk free after they’ve served 20 years or more. (You just know that if this measure passes, a later bill will shave the maximum further.)

“Obviously, I’m livid,” Polly’s father Marc Klaas told me via text. “SB94 is not only a knife in the chest to crime victims, it is also an assault on the judicial system, and greatly endangers anyone living in the orbit of the psychopaths, sadists, and sexual predators that will be littered back into society.”

Marc Klaas, who founded the KlaasKids Foundation in 1994, is correct. The bill is not an easy pass for shoplifters or reckless drivers. It is a green light for career criminals, sex offenders and thugs. If they do bodily harm and they’re convicted, the bill says, they can benefit from “evolving standards of decency and reforms that mandate the consideration of mitigating factors,” including childhood trauma, victimization, race, military service and an individual’s rehabilitation.

SB94 is part of a disturbing trend of progressive officials peeling back the enforcement of duly enacted laws for cases that have been decided by jurors and confirmed during court reviews.

We’ve seen it in New York, Chicago and California’s deep-blue cities.

What started out as commonsense reforms to reduce excessive prison terms meted out to nonviolent offenders has devolved into a return to the days when killers and rapists did not lack for apologists eager to blame their crimes on abusive childhoods and insufficient public-school funding.

The passage of three strikes in 1994 told career criminals that if they want to prey on innocent people, they should stay out of California. And it worked so well that voters may have forgotten how dangerous the world can be when bad actors don’t fear serious consequences.

Death penalty opponents used to argue in favor of substituting life without parole for capital punishment. Now they want to yank life sentences.

It doesn’t have to be this way. They can stop it here and not pass this measure. Or Sacramento can enact SB94 and ensure a backlash — Three Strikes, the sequel — after there’s another Polly Klaas.

Debra J. Saunders

Fellow, Chapman Center for Citizenship Leadership
A fellow with Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership, Debra J. Saunders worked for more than thirty years covering politics on the ground and in Washington, as well as American culture, the news media, the criminal justice system, and dubious trends in public schools and prestigious universities. Her column is nationally syndicated with Creators Syndicate.