WASHINGTON -- Five days before Christmas, President Clinton held a solemn meeting with a grieving father named Marc Klaas who began his visit to the Oval Office with words of sad simplicity.
"Mr. President," he said quietly, "let me tell you about my daughter. . . ."
The meeting lasted no more than 30 minutes, but it may be remembered someday as a catalyst in changing -- for better or worse -- the shape, scope and goals of America's criminal justice system.
Mr. Klaas' 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped in October from her bedroom in Petaluma, Calif., and taken up the coast, where she was killed and left beneath some plywood in a vacant lot 50 miles from home. The man charged with the crime, who police say confessed and led them to the body, is Richard Allen Davis, who had recently been paroled from prison by the state of California.
Mr. Klaas' plea to the president was simple: Help me keep such criminals locked up forever. Mr. Klaas asked Mr. Clinton to support a proposal adopted in Washington state that called for an irrevocable life sentence -- without possibility of parole -- for those convicted of a third violent offense.
"The man who killed my daughter would never have gotten out of prison," Mr. Klaas told the president.
Mr. Clinton's reply came a month later in his 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," the president told the nation in his Jan. 25 speech.
"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.
"Three strikes and you're out" has been condemned as racist by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, dismissed as expensive and ineffectual by lawyers' groups, assailed as inhumane and possibly unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties Union, and ridiculed as "just plain dumb" by Phillip B. Heymann -- who quit as Mr. Clinton's deputy attorney general over it.
And yet, even its fiercest critics acknowledge two things:
First, Bill Clinton is personally committed to it.
Second, it's almost certainly going to be the law of this land.
"There's no question," said a liberal critic, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project. "It's a juggernaut."
That juggernaut began slowly, and in an unlikely place -- the offices of John Carlson, a conservative radio commentator and president of a think tank in Washington state. In 1991, Mr. Carlson asked two aides to research a pet issue of his -- the state's procedures for dealing with repeat offenders.
In 1992, the two came back with their report, issued under the auspices of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies. Citing studies showing that a disproportionate amount of street crime is committed by repeat offenders, the report criticized the state's willingness to release career criminals and postulated that a three-time-loser measure could pass if put on the ballot. Washington, like most Western states, allows residents to vote proposals directly into law.
Washington's legislature passed a tough law intended to keep sexual predators locked up indefinitely. But a fire had been lighted in the electorate. Last year, the "three strikes and you're out" measure was put in a ballot initiative.
The results were stunning. By a margin of 76 percent to 24 percent, the residents of Washington decreed that in their state the third violent felony conviction -- defined to include even a robbery in which a perpetrator only simulates having a weapon -- would be the last.
The message behind the law reverberated across the country.
Despite warnings that such measures would turn America's prisons into "geriatric wards" -- Attorney General Janet Reno's phrase -- Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Phil Gramm of Texas inserted an even more restrictive three-strikes proposal in a crime bill in the U.S. Senate. The bill passed 91 to 1.
A spate of three-time-loser bills was also offered in the House, including one by Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee, by a vote of 27 to 8, put three strikes into the crime bill.
From California to Virginia, state ballot initiatives were written and bills were prepared to follow Washington state.
California, Polly Klaas' state, was the first in which a legislature passed a three-strikes bill. Gov. Pete Wilson signed it last week, vowing that the law would end "revolving justice."