The crime of kidnapping is defined as the illegal act of taking a person and transporting them against their will with force, fear, and/or intimidation. The laws in the United States date back to the 1930s after the highly publicized Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
The Federal Kidnapping Act authorized the FBI to investigate kidnapping based on the fact that a victim may be taken across state lines, which would make it a federal crime. However, most states have also recognized different types of kidnapping crimes, and have written laws and punishments accordingly.
That leads us to today’s question: Can you get life in prison for kidnapping?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
Thousands are reported missing everyday
Missing persons statistics are recorded in the Uniform Crime Report from the National Crime Information Center. However, it’s difficult to know the kidnapping statistics because the crime of kidnapping is not recorded separately and the data is hard to find.
In the NCIC’s 2010 report, they noted that over 65,000 individuals were categorized as a “person over the age of 21” who were missing with concerns for their safety. The data from around that time shows that approximately 2,300 Americans were reported missing everyday, including both adults and children.
Just a tiny fraction of those numbers are kidnappings by a stranger or a stereotypical abduction for ransom. The federal government reported in 2001 that there were 840,279 missing persons cases in the US. All but 50,000 were cases of missing juveniles under the age of 18.
The National Center for Missing Adults tracks about 48,000 active cases at any one time. Many of these cases are connected to mental health issues and drug addiction. Another significant subgroup is eldery citizens suffering from dementia.
When it comes to minor children, about half of those 800,000 cases involved runaways. While another 200,000 were classified as family abductions related to custody disputes and domestic violence. The vast majority of kidnappings in the United States are parental kidnappings.
Only about 100 cases each year are juvenile victims abducted by strangers. Approximately two-thirds of those victims are between the ages of 12 and 17, and 80 percent are white females. Almost 90 percent of abductors in those cases are men, and they sexually assault their victims in about half of those cases.
You can be charged with the federal crime of kidnapping if you take someone across state lines. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 — aka the infamous Clinton/Biden Crime Bill — actually reinstated the death penalty for the federal crime of kidnapping if it results in the death of any person.
Interstate kidnappings, international kidnappings, and ransom cases are relatively rare, but that’s what these federal laws are designed for. With the death penalty being the worst punishment, there are also different prison sentences (up to life in prison without parole) related to ransom cases, hostage takings, and international parental kidnappings.
The majority of kidnapping crimes are prosecuted as state offenses.With state kidnapping laws, there are usually different degrees of kidnapping crimes based on severity. Not every state is the same, but most have different categories.
For example, some states have first-degree kidnapping or aggravated kidnapping, which usually requires that the kidnapper physically harm, sexually assault, or expose the victim to serious risk of harm. A second degree kidnapping does not involve sexual or violent assault or exposing the victim to harm.
Most states have kidnapping laws with punishments, ranging anywhere from five years to life in prison. So, the answer to today’s blog post is definitely “yes.” In fact, if someone is convicted of kidnapping, it’s almost a guarantee that they will do time.
Sentences of 20 years or more are common for first-degree or aggravated kidnapping, while minimum sentences of five years or more are common for second-degree kidnapping.
It’s almost unheard of for someone to be convicted of kidnapping and not do some prison time. However, I should note that some states do not have laws against parental kidnapping. So, if a parent takes their child without the other parent’s consent or knowledge, it might not be a crime depending on the state.
The first American that received wide public attention when he was kidnapped for ransom was four-year-old Charley Ross in 1874. However, the primary suspects were killed before the police could identify them as the kidnappers and Ross was never found.
In 1972, a man named Kenneth Parnell abducted 7-year-old Steven Stayner when he was walking home from school. Parnell raised Steven as his own son for seven years until he abducted another child, Timmy White, in 1980. The two boys proceeded to escape and Parnell was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and sentenced to seven years in prison.
He served five years before his release, but was arrested once again in 2004 trying to coerce his caregiver into buying him a four-year-old child. He was convicted and put in prison until his death.
In 1974, 19-year old Hearst Corporation heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment by a left-wing guerilla group and proceeded to take part in a bank robbery. She was allegedly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, but was still sentenced to 35 years in prison. She served just 22 months before her release and received a full pardon from President Bill Clinton in 2001.
In 1981, Adam Walsh was abducted from a Sears department store at the Hollywood Mall in Florida and was later found murdered. As a result, his father, John Walsh, became an advocate for missing and exploited children and would later go on to host America’s Most Wanted.
In 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted by Richard Allen Davis and later strangled. He was convicted of first degree murder and kidnapping and sentenced to death. In the wake of the murder, Klaas’s father, Marc, became a child advocate and established the KlaasKids Foundation.
Klaas’ kidnapping and murder changed the California Highway Patrol APB system, as they upgraded to make sure the bulletins were broadcasted through all police channels via a centralized 911 dispatch system. It also resulted in California’s three strikes law in 1994.
Did you know the vast majority of kidnapping cases involved parents or family members? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: America's Missing https://web.archive.org/web/20150216071609/http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/forensics/americas_missing/2.html Kidnapped children make headlines, but abduction is rare in U.S. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-wisconsin-missinggirl-data/kidnapped-children-make-headlines-but-abduction-is-rare-in-u-s-idUSKCN1P52BJ Kidnapping Penalty Provision https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-1037-kidnapping-penalty-provision The Story of Charley Ross https://web.archive.org/web/20140427231701/http://www.ushistory.org/germantown/upper/charley.htm
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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