The usual suspects

On Oct. 1, 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped at knife point from her mother’s home during a slumber party in Petaluma. During the next two months, the search for her became a national story—actress Winona Ryder offered a $200,000 reward—and drew in perhaps 4,000 volunteers. A suspect was matched to a handprint at the Petaluma home and led police to the child’s body.

Because the search had become such a huge news story, the family—particularly father Marc Klaas—became public figures, and in the aftermath of the murder he pushed for enactment by the California Legislature of the “Three strikes and out” law under which the state imposed a life sentence after three criminal convictions. “If ‘Three strikes, you’re out’ had been approved [earlier], my daughter would still be alive,” he said during the 1994 California Legislature. The lawmakers acted quickly, and opponents, reluctant to speak in a climate of emotion, kept quiet.

But tough scrutiny is necessary in lawmaking and policymaking. Soon after its final enactment, California taxpayers were footing the bill for huge prison terms for shoplifters, and a study of 3,500 California criminal defendants showed the new law had no impact on criminal behavior.

Polly Klaas’s grandfather joined a campaign for an initiative petition to amend the Three Strikes law, but the initiative failed.

Scenarios like this unfold frequently, often becoming classic cases of unforeseen consequences. In the mid-1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving succeeded in state after state—Nevada included—in increasing penalties for driving under the influence. In the 1970s, parents were among the most effective spokespeople for more punitive drug policies that pushed drug use higher and filled the prisons with health care problems.

At the Nevada Legislature this year, the Reno family of murder victim Brianna Dennison—whose Jan. 20, 2008, disappearance brought the community out in a burst of activism and volunteerism—is lobbying the Nevada Legislature to enact a requirement that DNA samples be taken from persons who have not been convicted of anything but are merely suspects.

There may be good reason for this bill, but it needs to be scrutinized with care and considered in context with other issues and interconnected laws that get overlooked when bills are rushed to judgment.

Families of crime victims have an authority they have earned through painful experience, and lawmakers must hear them. But the wisdom of their legal approaches must be subjected to the same examination that any other proposal gets. For one thing, police in recent years have played games with the term “suspect,” designating some persons with that label while calling others “persons of interest.” That devaluing of the term means that not everyone so called may actually be a suspect.

Law enforcement has supported the Dennison family on the DNA issue. Law enforcement will support whatever tools it desires, whether it meshes with citizen rights and the Constitution or not. That’s their job. It’s the job of legislators to not allow themselves to be swept along by emotion or public clamor.

Assembly Bill 552, the DNA measure, has already gotten special treatment, being exempted from the schedule other bills must follow in the Nevada legislative process. That kind of cutting of corners is the way bad laws get onto the books.