Twenty years ago, career criminal Richard Allen Davis kidnapped and killed Polly Klaas, 12, radically changing the way California and the nation handle missing children, child molesters and repeat offenders, says the San Francisco Chronicle. Even before Davis was convicted, the governor signed the 1994 “three strikes” sentencing law, police agencies speeded their responses to kidnappings, and parents – newly fearful about letting kids out of sight – won the ability to look up registries of molesters on their block. Today, the raw emotions evoked by her death at the hands of a rare home-invasion stranger have faded. The massive changes prompted by her killing have settled into the fabric of government and society itself – and ever so slightly, some are being undone.
California voters in November softened the three strikes law – which put violent criminals behind bars for 25 years to life after a third felony conviction, and was replicated all over the nation – by exempting lesser offenders from life sentences. A realignment of the state’s crowded prison system is diverting thousands of prisoners into local jails and rehabilitation programs, and parental paranoia about stranger abductions is less pervasive. Crime has been falling for years – including offenses against children, which are down more than 50 percent since 1993. There is pushback from those who feel the frenzy of fear went too far. “There has definitely been a softening,” said Polly’s father, 64-year-old Marc Klaas, whose Klaas Kids Foundation is one of the nation’s leading child-search organizations. “There is a whole generation now that wasn’t even alive in 1994 when three strikes was passed – a lot of people who have no clue.”