It seems Marc didn't inherit his dad's common sense, but instead is running on hate.
By Bill Ainsworth
SACRAMENTO - The tragedy of his daughter's murder thrust a grieving Marc Klaas onto the public stage nearly 11 years ago. Now the tough anti-crime law forever linked to Polly Klaas' death has triggered a feud between Marc and his father, Joe Klaas.
They are two of the most prominent voices in a bitter campaign over whether to modify the "three strikes" sentencing law, which was fueled by anger over the 12-year-old girl's slaying in October 1993. Their disagreement over Proposition 66 on the November ballot is in some ways a fight over the political legacy of Polly's killing.
Once united against the original three-strikes law, Marc and Joe Klaas now are so divided on the issue that they aren't speaking to each other.
Marc Klaas believes the nation's toughest three-strikes law works well.
"'Three strikes' is where it should be," he said. "Crime has gone down and none of the dire predictions about it have come true."
Joe Klaas has campaigned for years to change the law. He's now serving as the spokesman for the ballot measure that would amend the law by requiring that second-and third-strike felonies be either violent or serious.
Under the current law, defendants with one serious or violent felony conviction have their sentences doubled if they commit any new felony. Those with two convictions face 25 years to life for their next felony, regardless of its severity.
Joe Klaas believes the law is unjust and costly. The money spent locking up nonviolent criminals could fund other services, he contends.
"This state is really strapped," he said. "They are closing libraries. They are closing day-care centers. People don't want that."
Proposition 66, which had strong public support in a poll last month, would impose a penalty of 25 years to life only if the third felony is a serious or violent crime. It would also reduce the number of crimes that qualify for strikes and increase sentences for child molesters.
The measure would allow thousands of offenders to have their sentences reduced and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst.
Ten years ago, the three-strikes law was passed amid a politically charged atmosphere and public outrage over violent crime.
In 1993, the slaying of Polly Klaas, kidnapped during a slumber party at her Petaluma home, seized the nation's attention and served as a flash point for public concern over violent crime.
Hundreds of volunteers helped in the search for the missing child. Eventually, Richard Allen Davis, a repeat violent offender, was captured, tried and convicted for her murder. Since then, he has been sentenced to death.
Just after his daughter's body was found, Marc Klaas teamed up with Mike Reynolds, whose daughter, Kimber Reynolds, had been killed nearly 18 months earlier.
Reynolds was working hard to pass the three-strikes law.
Klaas endorsed the measure, prompting thousands of volunteers to gather signatures to qualify the initiative in 1994. Nearly 100,000 of the 800,000 signatures the measure needed came from residents of Sonoma County, where Polly lived.
Within a few months, the Klaas family broke with Reynolds. They believed his version would force the state to spend too much money locking away nonviolent criminals, leaving less money for other services and programs.
Marc and Joe Klaas toured the state to speak against the measure.
They were joined in their opposition by an unlikely ally, the California District Attorneys Association. The group favored an alternative that would have targeted violent offenders. They even named the law, with Marc Klaas' blessing, the Polly Klaas Memorial Habitual Offender Reform Act.
By this time, momentum had swung against the Klaas family. The Legislature passed the law favored by Reynolds, then-Gov. Pete Wilson and the prison guards union.
In November 1994, voters approved the law by 72 percent to 28 percent.
Reynolds, a wedding photographer from Fresno, took his campaign nationwide. Now 24 states and the federal government have three-strikes laws.
But Reynolds said none of those laws is as strong as the one passed in California because they all require strikes to be violent and serious crimes. The California law has added years to the sentences of more than 58,000 criminals, he said.
In California, a petty thief with two strikes can get a 25-years-to-life sentence in some cases, forcing the criminal to wait longer for parole than someone convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a 15-to-life sentence. In San Diego, Steve Elias was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for stealing a printer at a hospital.
Elias is among the 357 inmates serving a third-strike sentence for petty theft. An additional 678 are serving such sentences for drug possession and 235 for auto theft, according to the Department of Corrections.
"I don't think we ought to be locking people up for stealing golf clubs. What kind of justice is that?" said Joe Klaas, referring to another publicized case.
Several initiatives to modify the three-strikes law have failed to qualify for the ballot, doomed by the lack of money to hire signature gatherers.
Joe Klaas said he is thrilled that the measure is on the ballot and that it gained support from 76 percent of voters surveyed in the nonpartisan Field Poll in June.
"I've been working on this for 10 years. The word finally got out," he said.
But Marc Klaas said he's horrified.
During the past 10 years, the former owner of a car-rental franchise has become a full-time advocate. He heads the Klaas Kids foundation, based in Sausalito, that helps promote child safety by supporting programs such as Amber Alert, which notifies the public about child abductions.
He now supports the three-strikes law he once opposed.
Court decisions have made it easier for judges and prosecutors to use discretion so pizza thieves – also a highly publicized case – don't end up in prison for life, he said.
Further, he was persuaded by a study of DNA samples in Virginia, which requires samples from all felons. Among the matches for unsolved crimes the state has found, 60 percent come from inmates convicted of violent felonies and 40 percent from nonviolent offenders.
Those results convinced Klaas that many nonviolent felons have also committed violent crimes. "The fact that they get busted for shoplifting and stealing pizza means they have a propensity for all types of crime," he said.
Klaas also dislikes a provision in Proposition 66 that would allow those convicted under the old law to apply for reduced sentences.
Opponents say that could lead to the release of 26,000 repeat offenders, including second-strikers. Backers of the measure contend that it applies only to about 4,000 three-strikes criminals whose last conviction was nonviolent.
Reynolds believes Marc Klaas' change of heart shows great integrity.
"It takes a real man to admit he's wrong," he said. "We're talking serious courage. I've got to hand it to the guy."
Marc Klaas isn't the only one to switch positions.
The California District Attorneys Association, which once opposed the law, now supports it.
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said she has come full circle on the three-strikes law. After initially calling the law too rigid, she said she saw firsthand as a judge that it worked. It gave offenders an incentive to go to drug treatment, and it was applied only to those with long criminal records, she said.
"I saw that a judge has the ability to exercise discretion and do the right thing," Dumanis said.
Marc Klaas said he plans to stay involved in the campaign opposing the new ballot measure to protect his daughter's legacy.
"The last thing I told my father about this is to never, ever use my daughter's name," Marc Klaas said. "I just don't want it to be part of her legacy that 26,000 bad boys are released on the streets and there's more little girls like Polly and more dads like me. Who wants to be part of that?"
Joe Klaas said he is honoring his son's request not to use Polly's name in the campaign.
In the past, he had said the law dishonors his granddaughter by equating her murder with the theft of a stereo from a home. Both crimes count as strikes.
In the campaign, both sides are using heated rhetoric that appears to deepen the rift between father and son. Opponents call the measure the most dangerous piece of legislation to come before voters in decades.
Joe Klaas, in a recent newspaper article, referred to three strikes as an "al-Qaeda-type" law.
Marc Klaas took offense to the comment. "Is he suggesting that me and the others are supporters of bin Laden?" he asked. "I can't even talk to my father about this."