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Op-Ed: Polly Klaas was our sister. We don’t want unjust laws to be her legacy

Polly Klaas, Jess Nichol and Annie Nichol
From left, Polly Klaas, Jess Nichol and Annie Nichol. The abduction and murder of Polly Klaas in 1993 was the impetus for a rash of harsh sentencing laws.
(Courtesy of Jess Nichol and Annie Nichol)

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.

Polly’s kidnapping set off a nationwide search; police officers, FBI agents and local volunteers worked tirelessly to find her and bring her home. The search ended when her body was found in the woods, two months after she went missing. She was 12 years old.

For the record:

10:04 AM, Oct. 23, 2020

A previous version of this op-ed article referred to an Alliance for Justice survey. The organization is the Alliance for Safety and Justice.

Losing Polly changed our lives forever. What we didn’t realize at the time was that our loss would also have a major impact on the criminal justice system for decades to come.

We were a tightknit blended family, sharing bunk beds and imaginary worlds. Our parents met when Jess and Polly began playing together on a playground when they were 3 years old and instantly became best friends. Annie was born three years later, and we sisters became an inseparable unit until the night Polly disappeared, 27 years ago.

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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.

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As Polly’s sisters, it is difficult to fathom how these laws became our sister’s legacy. The beauty of Polly’s life shouldn’t be overshadowed by this pervasive injustice.

Up until now, we have been reluctant to insert ourselves into the conversation around criminal justice out of respect for differing perspectives in our own extended family. Polly’s dad worked hard to see that stricter sentencing laws were passed after her death. We love and respect him, and it’s been painful to disagree about something that’s so personal for all of us.

But this is a pivotal moment in the history of our country. This summer, millions of brave Americans have taken to the streets to protest the racism and systemic injustices plaguing our country. Their courage has inspired us to speak out, to join the movement to transform our criminal justice system and build a better legacy for our sister.

As much as those who benefit from prisons want you to believe that mass incarceration makes us safer, the data tell a different story. Decades of research show that the harsh and violent prison environment is deeply damaging and sets people up to fail when they reenter society. On the other hand, rehabilitation — providing skills, services and treatment to incarcerated people — can drastically reduce recidivism rates. Legislators have mostly ignored this fact, claiming that tough-on-crime legislation is universally what crime victims want, but an Alliance for Safety and Justice survey found that victims of crime and their loved ones — like us — are twice as likely to favor rehabilitative programming and alternatives to incarceration. Clearly, incarcerating our way to safety doesn’t work.

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Thankfully, three-strikes and other extreme sentencing laws have undergone some progressive reforms in the last decade to expand rehabilitation, but an initiative on California’s November ballot called Proposition 20 aims to reverse much of that progress. Proposition 20 is an attempt by the prison industry and its allies to yet again weaponize our fear to expand their profits and their prisons.

Like many other victim advocates, we believe that the resources spent on mass incarceration should be used to reinvest in underserved communities for prevention programs. By providing support, job training and rehabilitative services, we can prevent crime at the local level, help formerly incarcerated people successfully reintegrate into society and make our communities safer.

Proposition 20 would move criminal justice in California backwards. As Polly’s sisters, we strongly support systemic interventions that actually work to lift up our communities and keep people safe.

Annie Nichol is a writer and editor. Jess Nichol is a leadership consultant and public speaker.


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