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Polly Klaas’s Murder Led to Tough-on-Crime Laws. Now Her Sisters Want to Build Her a New Legacy.

Polly Klaas’s Murder Led to Tough-on-Crime Laws. Now Her Sisters Want to Build Her a New Legacy.

When Jess and Annie Nichol had been just kids, the unthinkable took place. On Oct. 1, 1993, in the tiny town of Petaluma, CA, their 12-calendar year-previous sister, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped from her bedroom in the course of a Friday night time sleepover and murdered.

Their family members was straight away thrust into the community eye as the circumstance drew nationwide consideration and outrage. In the aftermath of both of those Polly’s murder and the 1992 killing of 18-year-outdated Kimber Reynolds, California voters enacted the severe sentencing law regarded as “three strikes.” Less than the law, persons convicted of almost any criminal offense could get a lifestyle sentence, as lengthy as they’d been convicted of two prior serious or violent felonies. As a result, men and women ended up receiving lifestyle sentences right after stealing a pair of tube socks or a one slice of pizza.

Polly Klaas’s Murder Led to Tough-on-Crime Laws. Now Her Sisters Want to Build Her a New Legacy.
Polly, Jess, and Annie

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In 2012, voters reformed the legislation, getting rid of lifetime sentences for considerably less severe and nonviolent third convictions, but its impact on the felony justice system—and the tricky on crime movement—was indelible.

Annie and Jess have an understanding of that folks may well think they aid procedures like these. (Polly’s father, Marc Klaas, has been an outspoken advocate for strict sentencing legislation.) In fact, their sister’s hyperlink to mass incarceration has been devastating. “It’s tricky to describe how peculiar it is to be linked to this legacy,” Annie tells ELLE.com, “and then to carry the shame and the discomfort of that legacy.” Even though the two have been quite non-public for most of their lives—hesitant about reentering the spotlight that engulfed so considerably of their childhood—over the last number of years, the sisters commenced to take into consideration how they might be aspect of a various form of tale for Polly. In Oct 2021, they released a podcast, aptly titled A New Legacy, as a way to converse to authorities and crime survivors about the impacts of violence and mass incarceration and the progressive approaches people today are utilizing to make communities safer.

“It took awhile for us to sense completely ready to speak for what we imagine in,” Jess says. Below, the two share, in their own terms, how they last but not least decided it was time.


Our sister, Polly Klaas, was 12 years outdated when she was kidnapped from her bedroom and murdered. At the time, we were being young children, and we couldn’t picture the hurt that would appear from the legal guidelines that ended up passed in the wake of her kidnapping.

Following Polly’s murder, there was a substantial outpouring of grief and outrage throughout the nation. In response, lawmakers handed some extremely punitive legislation, which includes the severe sentencing legal guidelines called a few strikes. At to start with, we assumed it was superior information. The message was: This is likely to make it so what took place to Polly doesn’t transpire to other people. But quite quickly, we understood what would basically transpire was that men and women ended up heading to be incarcerated for petty theft and get life sentences. A few strikes, which arrived from a location of seeking to retain individuals protected, would in fact devastate numerous persons and their people. Now, as a result of that tricky on criminal offense motion that began about 30 decades back, several states have a few strikes laws, dramatically escalating jail populations and worsening mass incarceration in our nation.

jess and annie nichol, and polly klaas
Jess, Annie, and Polly

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It might be stunning to people today to know how we experience about this, specially because we missing Polly in the way we did. But the real truth is that we do not assist incarcerating more persons. Not only does it not reduce crime, but it prioritizes punishment about prevention, and it actually doesn’t make us safer.

Presently, there are about two million persons incarcerated in the U.S., the maximum incarceration price in the planet. There are also intense racial disparities at every stage of the justice technique, like who gets arrested, who gets incarcerated, how very long a individual stays in jail, and if they’re at any time granted release 80 {c0a26218f97d26338f369517a5968de682c18ee213925cbf5c6b09a3a974e07a} of a few-strikers in California are people of shade. A staggering $80 billion is used on mass incarceration every single 12 months. What would come about if even a fraction of that income ended up directed towards avoidance expert services like drug therapy, psychological wellbeing, or housing help? How lots of crimes could be prevented? How numerous people today would hardly ever needlessly end up in the carceral technique for thieving pocket adjust or a pair of socks?

annie nichol and polly klaas

It is tough to describe how unusual it is to be linked to this legacy of mass incarceration and the pervasive injustice of three strikes, which occurred as a end result of the worst trauma we’ve seasoned, and then to carry the disgrace and the ache of that legacy. It’s been significant for us for a seriously extended time.

Our childhoods were spent in a agonizing highlight, and section of the trauma we went by way of was not only enduring the loss of our sister in this violent way, but also every thing that happened immediately after. We’ve been component of a story that is been used in the genuine crime style. There have been so several videos and books and points that have felt exploitative to us, and there’s usually been this genuinely profound disconnect involving the variation of Polly that you see in the news and the human being that we understood. We experience protective of our recollections of Polly, for the reason that we never want them to conclusion up currently being made use of by anybody for income. And we really do not want Polly to carry on to be applied as a political tool. There’s anything to be claimed for the way that we sensationalize incredibly precise tales, but in carrying out so, we enable persons to bypass more substantial realities and programs we’re all a part of.

It took awhile for us to really feel ready to talk up for what we feel in. It is taken a lot of individual operate for both of us to want to reenter the discussion in a quite community way and to do it alongside one another. But in December 2019, we explained, “Let’s determine out if there is everything we can do.”

We started by calling the ACLU and talked to people today who referred us to other people today, and quickly enough, we were talking about the parts we definitely wished to aim on. Then came the protests for racial justice in summer time 2020. Individuals gave us clarity and conviction, and we were being surprised to uncover that persons needed us to be associated. We commenced possessing discussions with advocates and policy industry experts who assisted us have an understanding of what’s really at stake. We spoke to formerly incarcerated people today, which includes folks who have been imprisoned for decades less than 3 strikes. Considering that then, we’ve gotten the possibility to speak with community leaders throughout the country who’ve experienced results avoiding damage by choices to incarceration, like violence intervention, restorative justice packages, and other neighborhood-based mostly approaches. We first came into this conversation pondering probably we could influence three strikes in a positive way, and now we see it is so a great deal bigger than that.

No matter whether or not men and women want to accept this, the actuality is we are all related to the issues that have broken our justice procedure. If there is anything this pandemic ought to have taught us, it is how interconnected we are. We just cannot prioritize the basic safety of a single local community at the expenditure of other people. We require to discover how to consider new prospects and new futures—and not just presume we have to be permanently trapped in a dysfunctional, punitive process.

jess and annie nichol, and polly klaas
Jess, Polly, and Annie

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There’s a little something about this instant we’re in ideal now with mounting criminal offense prices where there is a large amount of rhetoric that feels eerily acquainted. It is disturbing, and it is part of why we experience compelled to discuss out. We keep in mind listening to this variety of panic from some of the earliest yrs of our life. Now that we’re sitting in this article, almost 3 many years afterwards, wanting back on all of the hurt that was accomplished as a final result of that, we want to beg men and women to pause. If we let panic encourage shortsighted policy choices like it did in the ‘90s, it will once again direct to remarkable damage to marginalized communities. Rather, we hope individuals are ready to have not comfortable conversations. That is what we’re striving to do: have tough conversations and observe the management of men and women who are doing work to dismantle mass incarceration and make their communities safer.

We have a obligation to leverage the privilege we have, for whichever bizarre or tragic rationale we have it. We’re component of a truly tiny subset of large-profile victims who get a disproportionate total of awareness and acknowledgement for what we have been by. But we want to make absolutely sure that all victims voices are heard and prioritized.

It is a strange matter, mainly because our privilege is also portion of our trauma. It’s all compounded, but we just cannot ignore the reality that we may not know what happened to Polly if she hadn’t been white. The point that we do appear to be to have outsized voices usually means it is critical that we consider to use them to elevate other folks. On our podcast, we spoke with Alliance for Basic safety and Justice’s Lenore Anderson, who told us about the hierarchy of damage on a single conclusion of the hierarchy are persons like us, where our trauma was so publicly broadcast, and on the other finish, there are people today who never ever truly feel like they skilled any variety of justice. There is a way that we deal with trauma and victims in this country that essentially desires to transform. It feels like a responsibility, but also sort of an honor, to be ready to give voice to that.

This 12 months has supplied so much transformation and empowerment as we’ve figured out how to use our voices to produce a new legacy for Polly—one that’s really grounded in healing and a design of reparative justice, a person that addresses the root triggers of violence and inequality and not just its signs or symptoms. It’s a major conversation, and we’re not politicians. We’re just persons, but this feels like some thing we were being called to do, even nevertheless at times our voices shake. And we’re nonetheless understanding. But we hope we can design how to have uncomfortable discussions in company of coming to new concentrations of knowledge. We hope we’re normalizing a various vision for what justice could glimpse like.

nichol sisters
Jess and Annie

Photograph by Bryan Gibel / Focal Position Films

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.