Deborah Bauman

The extensive media coverage of the kidnapping and murder of twelve-yearold Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California, and of the subsequent campaign to enact punitive criminal justice policies to avenge her death, helped galvanize the public to enact excessively harsh three-strikes laws in California in 1994. The media, while not the only influence, played a significant role in the passage of the three-strikes ballot initiative, Proposition 184. An initiative amends California’s constitution and can therefore only be overturned by a two-thirds majority of the legislature or of voting public, a highly unlikely outcome (Domanick, 2004; Callanan, 2005). The mechanisms and effects by which the media steered the public towards excessively harsh sentencing laws will be explored here.

To provide background on the crime and concomitant media frenzy that ignited the three-strikes campaign, on October 1, 1993, Polly Klass was abducted from her bedroom during a slumber party in Petaluma, a serene northern California suburb. Within hours, the image of her sweet, photogenic face was broadcast over local and national news, and tearful entreaties by Polly’s father Marc Klaas to find his daughter interrupted programming (Callanan, 2005). The media also reported the massive search effort, which involved over one thousand volunteers (Domanick, 2004). When the actress Winona Ryder issued a reward for Polly’s return, the cachet of celebrity only intensified the media coverage in a variety of outlets: entertainment news and reality shows like “America’s Most Wanted;” newsmagazines like 20/20; newspapers like The Los Angeles Times (which featured Polly’s story on the front page several times), the human interest and celebrity magazine, People, who called Polly “America’s Child” (Domanick, 2004). Indeed, her kidnapping triggered every parent’s worst fears. When it was learned, two months later, that Polly had been murdered, and probably raped, by a repeat violent offender, Richard Allen Davis, the public outcry produced further media attention.

Radio talk show hosts asked listeners to avenge Polly’s murder by supporting harsh sentencing laws – specifically, Mike Reynolds’ proposed three strikes law. Reynolds, whose 18-year-old daughter had been murdered, had attempted to create a new law that would increase sentences not only for repeat violent offenders, but also for serious habitual offenders (Callanan, 2005). But his proposal had received only a lukewarm reception - that is, until the public furor over the Klaas murder. More radio stations, newspapers, and television news channels joined in the effort to goad the public to support Reynolds’ initiative (Domanick, 2004). Further spurred by the support of special interest groups like the California prison guards, and championed by politicians in an election year, notably Pete Wilson in his gubernatorial campaign, Proposition 184 passed by an overwhelming majority. Significantly, the bill had been ‘spun’ in the media to put away repeat violent offenders only (Callanan, 2005). In the mind of the public, this punitive criminal policy was a panacea that offered a simple solution to the problem of crime (Turner, Sundt, Applegate & Cullen, 1995). But sentencing laws based on a baseball analogy and catchy phrase belied their severity. California’s three strikes were the most wide-reaching of any state in that an offender convicted of any kind of felony with two prior convictions for violent or serious felonies receives a minimum sentence of 25 years to life (Callanan, 2004). These felonies included, for examples, petty theft, minor drug possession and residential burglary (Domanick, 2004). Many other states had restricted three strikes laws to violent offenders only. Therefore, California’s habitual offender statutes were viewed as excessively harsh, and have created questionable convictions (Turner et al., 1995). The laws have also led to constitutional controversy on the grounds that the law violates the eighth amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment (Turner et al., 1995).

Although the drive to implement three strikes resulted from a convergence of factors, including politicians and elected officials across party lines who used the issue for political gain, and the punitive orientation of the public, the media’s role cannot be underestimated in influencing the public to adopt punitive criminal policies. Indeed, the media framed the Klaas murder as the symbolic crime for the three strikes campaign that demonstrated the necessity of the law (Surette, 1996). Studies support the media’s ability to influence punitive attitudes; according to Sun Beale, experimental simulations and survey research confirm that media coverage strengthens support for harsh criminal policies (as cited in Paletz, 2002, p. 117-118). It is also important to consider the influence of media culture on the 1993 Klaas case, which, according to Fox & Van Sickel (2001) was “an era of tabloid justice” (p. 72) in which news and entertainment merged, and real-life crimes became national melodramas. The Klaas story, featured on reality television, entertainment news and newsmagazines, a format that proliferated since 1993 (Fox & Van Sickel, 2001), was fodder for this tabloidization.

The Klaas crime, amplified by the media, helped set the public’s agenda by instilling fear and increasing the public’s concern about crime (Surette, 1996). Agenda setting refers to the media’s ability to direct the public’s focus to specific topics through the stories they choose to cover (Sun Beale, 2006; Fox & Van Sickel, 2001). Through agenda setting, the media also increased crime salience, which caused the public to regard crime as more serious than it was in reality (Sun Beale, 2006). In fact, child abductions are rare, and Sun Beale states that violent crimes have declined since the 1990s (as cited in Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006). The agenda setting effect is particularly strong when networks place stories as “lead stories” (Sun Beale, 2006). In late 1993, the Klaas crime was a leading national news story, thus increasing its salience. Klaas’s murder, an atypical case that the media made normative sent a message that social mores had broken down and crime was on the rise (Surette, 1996). Using a social construction of reality perspective, if this white, middle-class child could be taken from her bedroom and brutally murdered, than ordinary citizens and their children were not safe anywhere, and law enforcement couldn’t be relied on for protection (Surette, 1996).

Once the news increases crime salience through agenda setting, the media then primes audiences to believe that those issues warrant political attention (Fox & Van Sickel, 2001). Sun Beale posits that priming rests on cognitive accessibility theory, in which people make judgments using unconscious shorthand (as cited in Iyengar & Kinder, 1987, p. 30-33 ). In the Klaas case, viewers were primed through saturation of imagery to link her murder with the desire for vengeance through the three-strikes campaign.

Another media effect, framing, refers to the internal structure of crime stories (Fox & Van Sickel, 2001). Further, television news coverage can be either thematic or episodic (Fox & Van Sickel, 2001). While thematic stories focus on the broad social context and analysis, episodic framing focuses on individual stories (Fox & Van Sickel, 2001). Because the Klaas story focused on the predatory criminal Richard Allen Davis, the media’s use of episodic framing intensified the notion that crime emerges from individual responsibility and pathology, not in structural problems in society (Surette, 1998). Therefore, the media’s framing of the Klaas crime through the model of the predatory criminal encouraged the public to blame the individual, and indirectly led the public to support punitive criminal justice policies (Surette, 1998).

The Klaas case also represented distorted crime coverage by overrepresentation of a white victim as opposed to a minority victim, an example of media bias. Sun Beale states that studies confirm that minorities appear more often on news as suspects than victims (as cited in Chircos & Eschholz, 2002, p. 400, 402). One can argue the idealized image of a white, middle class child was used to justify punitive criminal policies, as exemplified in California’s three-strikes laws. These harsh statutes have further had a broad impact on sentencing laws in the United States. Between 1993 and 1995, twenty-four states ad the federal government had adopted some form of three strikes law (Shichor & Sechrest, 1998).

Although crime rates have fallen since the 1990s, the media’s focus on crime has only increased (Sun Beale, 2006). The public, meanwhile, is unaware of crime reductions, and, perhaps due to the influence of the media, continues to support punitive criminal policies. This tough stance prevails in spite of the fact that, while controversial, most scholars believe that changing sentencing policy has only had a “relatively small influence on criminal activity” (Sun Beale, 2006, p. 414). Of further serious concern, California’s three-strikes-laws have had negative consequences of severe prison overcrowding, fiscal costs and constitutional concerns (Turner et al., 1995; Domanick, 2004). In 2003, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to these ethical considerations when it ruled against the appeals of two offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes on grounds that their near-life sentences did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. (One of these men had received a sentence of fifty-years-to-life for shoplifting children’s videos.) The Supreme Court vote thus sealed the fate of 42.7 percent of inmates (as of 2003) convicted of nonviolent crimes who would now spend virtually the rest of their natural lives in prison (Domanick, 2004). But California citizens ignored negative claims against prop 184; in an electronic age in which visual imagery dominates the media, the public’s emotional response to the heinous Klaas murder overwhelmed analytic thought about the long-term impact of the legislation (Surette, 1996). Ultimately, three-strikes laws deflect attention from the need to focus on the structural factors in society that produce repeat offenders in the first place. Ironically, the power of the media must be harnessed to reform Proposition 184.


Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Serious Violent Crime levels Declined since 1993, available at

Callanan, V. (2005). Feeding the fear of crime: Crime-related media and support for three strikes. : New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Chiricos, T. & Eschholz, S. (2002). The racial and ethnic typification of crime and the criminal typification of race and ethnicity in local television news, J. Res. Crime & Delinq. 39, 400, 402.

Domanick, J. (2004). Cruel justice: Three strikes and the politics of crime in america’s golden state. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. Fox, R. & Van Sickel, R.W. (2001). Tabloid justice: criminal justice in an age of media frenzy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Iyengar, S. & Kinder, D. (1987). News that matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Paletz, D.L. (2002). The media in american politics: Contents and consequences. New York: Longman.

Sun Beale, S. (2006). The news media’s influence on criminal justice policy: How market-driven news promotes punitiveness. William and Mary Law Review, 48, 2. 397- 481.

Surette, R. (1996). “”News from nowhere, policy to follow: Media and the social construction of “three strikes and you’re out.” In D. Shichor and D. Sechrest (Eds.), Three strike and you’re out, vengeance as public policy (pp. 177-203). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Turner, M.G., Sundt, J.L., Applegate, B.K., & Cullen, F.T. (1995). “Three strikes and you’re out” legislation: A national assessment. Federal Probation, 59, 16-35.


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