Good morning, it’s Wednesday, January 10, 2018. On this date in 1994, a mid-level working group of Justice Department attorneys recommended that the federal government embrace a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” policy for violent repeat offenders.
Some career prosecutors in the building known as “Main Justice” were flabbergasted, but they shouldn’t have been: The impetus for the new policy not only came from the White House, it came from the president himself. And soon after the working group’s endorsement of three- strikes, Bill Clinton told his speechwriters he wanted to cover it in that year’s State of the Union address.
For the president, the tipping point had come after an Oval Office meeting five days before Christmas with a Californian named Marc Klaas. The two men talked about the criminal justice system, and about their daughters, both beloved only children. Chelsea Clinton was about to turn 14. But Polly Klaas was murdered three months shy of her 13th birthday, after being snatched out of her bedroom and brutalized by a complete stranger -- a sadistic psychopath and career criminal.
I’ll have more on this case in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum.
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On October 1, 1993, Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her home in Petaluma during a slumber party. Richard Allen Davis, who confessed to the crime and led police to the body, not only had an extensive history of home burglaries, but several convictions for rape and attacking women in their homes.
Nonetheless, he’d been inexplicably paroled by the state of California four months earlier. What Marc Klaas wanted to know was why such travesties of justice kept happening in this country. He had devoted his life to trying to stop them.
In the Oval Office, Klaas told Clinton of a new law enacted in Washington state that called for an irrevocable life sentence -- without possibility of parole -- for those convicted of a third violent offense.
If such a statute was on the books in California, he told the sympathetic president, “the man who killed my daughter would never have gotten out of prison.”
Clinton’s reply to this entreaty came later that month in the 1994 State of the Union address.
"Violent crime and the fear it provokes are crippling our society, limiting personal freedom and fraying the ties that bind us," Clinton told the nation. “Those who commit crimes should be punished, and those who commit repeated violent crimes should be told: 'When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away for good. Three strikes, and you are out!’”
That line prompted the loudest applause of the night. But in the days to follow, the president's endorsement of this proposal sent shock waves of dissent through the Democratic Party's liberal establishment, including in Mr. Clinton's own Justice Department.
The proposal had already been condemned as racist by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, dismissed as expensive and ineffectual by trial lawyers' groups, assailed as inhumane and possibly unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties Union, and ridiculed as "just plain dumb" by Philip Heymann -- who quit as deputy attorney general over it.
But the fire had already been lit in the electorate. In 1993, by a margin of 75 percent to 25 percent, Washington state voters decreed in a referendum that the third violent felony conviction -- defined to include even a robbery in which a perpetrator only simulates having a weapon -- would be the perpetrator’s last.
The message behind the law reverberated across the country.
And despite warnings from Clinton’s own Justice Department that “three strikes” would turn America’s prisons into “geriatric wards” -- Attorney General Janet Reno's phrase -- the measure was included in a sweeping administration-backed omnibus crime bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate.
Alarmed liberals tried to do what they could. As the House began to take up three-strikes, Rep. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who chaired a House judiciary subcommittee, asked Clinton to consider an exception to the law so as to allow a three-time loser who was 55 or older, who had served at least 25 years and who was deemed by prison authorities to be no longer a danger, to petition a court for release.
“No,” he replied simply. “The value that life in prison really means life is important."
Schumer was somewhat surprised at the rebuff, but he hadn’t done his homework. Those who knew Clinton back in Arkansas knew that this was precisely the kind of loophole Clinton was trying to close.
In his first term as governor, Clinton commuted the sentence of a prisoner named James L. Surridge. He had five felony convictions dating to 1929 and was serving a life term for a 1964 murder. But he was dying of cancer, doctors said, and at age 73 he was hardly considered a threat.
On the strength of that argument, Surridge walked out of prison on February 13, 1980, two weeks before Chelsea was born. Within a year, he had embarked on a crime spree that included robbing a bank and killing a man by shooting him in the back of the head with a .22-caliber weapon.
Afterward, Clinton lost the only election of his life. When he ran for governor again in 1982, he vowed to never commute another murderer’s sentence again.
“You let a guy out and he kills again, you tend to get more conservative on this,” Bobby Roberts, Clinton's former adviser on pardons and commutations, told me at the time. “He thought through this issue a long time ago."
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics