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How the “Stranger Danger” Panic of the 1980s Helped Give Rise to Mass Incarceration

The 1980s saw the spread of a nationwide panic about “stranger danger,” a supposed epidemic of child kidnappings and murders. Under the guise of protecting children, the media-driven hysteria helped spur mass incarceration.

The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California. Michal Czerwonka / Getty

The missing-child panic began with Etan Patz. Plenty of kids had gone missing before, but Etan’s case seemed specially designed to provoke a mass hysteria. In 1979, the six-year-old boy’s mother arranged for him to walk to the school bus stop on his own. She watched him depart from her Manhattan fire escape. Another mother was waiting two blocks away in an apartment overlooking the bus stop site, but Etan never arrived.

The tragedy was and remains impossible to comprehend. His first time walking to the bus stop? Two blocks away? With adults looking out for him? It meant something. There were powerful forces capable of unfathomable violence — forces previously undetected, possibly swiftly advancing, perhaps already everywhere — from which nobody was safe. 

High-quality photographs of Etan taken by his father, a professional photographer, blanketed the city and the national news media for months, which stretched into years. Fear began to mount, and eventually all were afraid. Children’s faces, including but hardly limited to Etan’s, began appearing on milk cartons. In 1982, CBS Evening News informed rapt and terrified adults that up to fifty thousand American children were being kidnapped by strangers every year.

“These figures were wildly inflated, as journalists, social scientists, and government officials had made clear by the mid-1980s,” writes Paul Renfro in his new book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State. But it didn’t matter. Panic had clenched the nation’s psyche, and its grip was tightening.

Renfro situates the response to Etan Patz’s disappearance in the context of 1970s New York. As “deindustrialization battered New York City with an enduring intensity” and “some two million white New Yorkers bolted for the suburbs,” the city was left in crisis. The social chaos that resulted — which was exaggerated, as Renfro points out, but did include rising crime — demanded a response of some kind. That response could have been an expanded welfare state. Instead, it was austerity and a bulked-up policing and carceral apparatus. 

It’s no coincidence that the nation’s missing child or “stranger danger” panic originated in a city that much of the nation had already come to regard as the epicenter of dangerous strangers — and a city that had already begun to lay the groundwork to respond with more police and prisons. The link between mass incarceration and violence against children was there from the beginning of the stranger danger panic, foreshadowing what would transpire in the decades to come. 

A Bipartisan Tradition

Renfro’s book covers a great deal of territory, including, interestingly, how homophobia dovetailed with the stranger danger panic. It was assumed for decades that Patz’s abductors were associated with NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a fringe group that became a source of lurid fascination, especially among conservatives who declared its existence a natural consequence of extending rights to LGBT people. 

In 2017, a man named Pedro Hernandez was convicted of Etan’s murder. He had a history of mental illness that caused hallucinations. He had no NAMBLA affiliation, and claimed in his confession that his motive was not sexual. But decades had already passed during which Etan Patz’s disappearance, the advance of gay rights, and the threat of pedophilia had all swirled into one big, indistinguishable phenomenon for millions of onlookers.

Renfro’s most important contention in Stranger Danger, however, is that the missing children panic of the 1980s and ‘90s played an important political role in the rise in mass incarceration. The names and images of individual missing and murdered children — always white, middle-class ones — were used throughout the era to justify tough-on-crime legislation submitted by both Republicans and Democrats and shield that legislation from criticism. 

The Reagan administration, which had made family values and law and order two of its central themes, found that the stranger danger panic combined them perfectly. 

In response to Etan’s disappearance, Reagan assembled a task force on missing and exploited children. The task force proceeded to issue recommendations primarily hinging on restoring nuclear families so that children would be safe in their homes, with both of their parents, away from strangers. Never mind that the Reaganite agenda of privatization and austerity was in fact placing dreams of normative nuclear family life farther out of reach for many working-class people, to say nothing of rising incarceration. And never mind that most physical and sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by their own family members or well-known adults anyway.

The Reagan administration was ostentatious in its advocacy for legislation that would increase criminal penalties on those who harm children. Given the widespread hysteria at the time that child abduction by strangers was a mass phenomenon, these measures gave an indisputably heroic sheen to the Republican Party’s other tough-on-crime, harsher-penalty advocacy — the bare bones of mass incarceration. 

Reagan devoted many of his speeches to reinforcing the idea that social chaos was threatening everything we hold dear and promising to hold back the forces of darkness with law and order. What most people saw was that Reagan made May 25 National Missing Children’s Day in honor of Etan Patz — but what also happened was that the prison population exploded during his presidency. The same process occurred throughout the period on the state level.

This moment in history coincided with the Democrats’ sharp rightward turn; during the Reagan administration, then-senator Joe Biden co-wrote drug crime legislation with the segregationist Strom Thurmond. And so rather than reject Reagan’s disingenuous use of missing and dead children to rationalize harsher penalties and expand the carceral system, leading Democrats studied and imitated it to great effect.

In 1993, twelve-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered by a stranger in California. “While Americans are more secure from threats abroad, we all know that in many ways we are less secure from threats here at home,” said Bill Clinton in his 1994 State of the Union address. “Every day the national peace is shattered by crime. In Petaluma, California, an innocent slumber party gives way to agonizing tragedy for the family of Polly Klaas.” 

He continued, “Those who commit repeated violent crimes should be told, ‘When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away, and put away for good.’” He was using Polly Klaas’s name to advocate for the 1994 Crime Bill, which expanded mass incarceration like no other single piece of federal legislation in American history.

“From December 1993 through the 1996 reelection campaign, Clinton mentioned the Klaas case in at least sixteen separate public speeches,” Renfro observes. Polly’s father joined Clinton as he campaigned for the crime bill. 

A February 1994 memo written by a Clinton policy advisor states that “Klaas’s support for the administration’s anti-crime efforts is invaluable to us, not just in the coming weeks as we push to pass the crime bill, but over the long haul as we seek to prove that Democrats are not soft on crime.” The 1994 crime bill was dedicated in Polly Klaas’s name.

Memorial Laws

The period saw a proliferation of such “memorial laws,” legislative interventions with enormous implications muscled through with a dead child’s name on them. 

Included in the crime bill was the Wetterling Act, named after eleven-year-old Jacob Wetterling who was kidnapped and murdered in Minnesota in 1989. Just months before the passage of the crime bill, seven-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered by a neighbor in New Jersey. In 1996, an amendment was added to the 1994 Wetterling Act called Megan’s Law. The Wetterling Act helped create a national sex offender registry, and the Megan’s Law stipulated that the information it contained should be proactively shared with the public.

The ACLU and others raised concerns that some memorial laws were too far-reaching, and had implications that were not being thoroughly discussed — including potentially increasing the likelihood that an offender, now experiencing a form of “social death” with no hope of reintegration into normal society, would see little reason to restrain themselves from reoffending. A few advocates also pointed out that the emphasis was all wrong: most children are harmed by people they know, not by strangers. But the names and images of murdered children were a shield against all criticism. Those who flagged issues with the laws found few friends.

The memorial laws passed, and so too did the crime bill, buoyed by the inclusion of legislation that claimed to protect children as well as the attached Violence Against Women Act. If you didn’t support the crime bill, the implication became that you did support violence against women and children. “The image of endangered childhood proved vital in this environment of intense anticrime sentiment,” writes Renfro. In other words, tragedies like the murders of Jacob Wetterling, Polly Klaas, and Megan Kanka helped sell tough-on-crime legislation that would have consequences that extended far beyond the protection of children from dangerous strangers.

Like Marc Klaas, Wetterling’s mother was at first a crusader for the legislation named after her son. But after two decades of activism against child sexual exploitation, she changed her outlook, concluding that the sex offender registry system did not make children or adults safer from sexual predation. Most studies now indicate that that they simply don’t work: overall registries don’t decrease sex crime recidivism. “What we really want is no more victims,” Patty Wetterling now says. “Don’t do it again. So, how can we get there? Locking them up forever, labeling them, and not allowing them community support doesn’t work. I’ve turned 180 [degrees] from where I was.”

The logic extends to the rest of the tough-on-crime legislation of the era. It should be obvious to us now that harsher penalties do not act as crime deterrents. Instead the resultant mass incarceration destabilizes individual lives and whole communities, doing nothing to reduce crime — in fact driving it upward. 

The road forked before Etan Patz disappeared, when rising urban crime could have received one of two responses: a supportive one, characterized by genuine public investment in the well-being of all people, or a punitive one, characterized by harsher laws and more police and prisons. The nation chose the latter, and the images of children tragically kidnapped, abused, and murdered by strangers helped sell us on that choice. 

It’s impossible to undo the mistakes of the last half-century. But like Patty Wetterling, we can turn 180 degrees and choose a response that actually has a chance of fostering the safety and well-being of both children and adults, starting today.