Picking 'three-strikers' to free poses complex challenge

Prop. 47's success could move some three-strikers toward freedom

In California prison, Lester Wallace was hardly a model inmate.

He spat at a correctional officer, fought with another convict and grabbed a prison guard by the neck before punching him in the stomach.

Wallace racked up more than 20 disciplinary charges while serving a life prison term under the state's "three strikes" sentencing law for trying to steal a car radio.

Still, he says, he deserves another chance.

Wallace is one of more than 1,000 prisoners from Los Angeles County who have asked a judge to reduce the length of their sentences or free them under Proposition 36, a 2012 ballot measure that softened three strikes. A request can be denied if a judge decides an inmate poses an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety."

More than 550 inmates have already been resentenced in Los Angeles County under the initiative, but the district attorney's office is strongly opposing the release of another 530 or so third-strikers, such as Wallace, arguing that they haven't been rehabilitated and remain a threat.

Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan, who handles the cases, said many of his previous decisions were "no-brainer" calls involving inmates who prosecutors agreed deserved release. For another large group of inmates, the district attorney's office opposed resentencing but didn't demand hearings when Ryan indicated that he favored reducing punishments.

The latest round of cases, which include Wallace's, are more contentious.

"I think the calls will be closer and closer," Ryan said.

The district attorney's oppositions have helped slow the pace of resolving resentencing requests in Los Angeles, which is well behind other counties.

In examining each case, Ryan said, he has been reviewing the criminal and prison records of the inmates, checking to see whether they have taken vocational training, substance abuse counseling or anger-management classes. The judge said he wants to make sure that people leaving prison after serving so much time have the skills to find jobs to take care of themselves and keep out of trouble.

His future decisions may well be influenced by this month's passage of another criminal-justice ballot measure, Proposition 47, which defined "danger to public safety" as an unreasonable risk of committing specific serious or violent crimes, including murder, sexual assault and child molestation.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which changed the three-strikes law. They were swayed in part by tales of inmates with nonviolent histories serving life terms for the pettiest of crimes, such as stealing a pair of socks.

In some ways, however, Wallace better fits the profile of the average third-striker helped by the ballot measure. He has a lengthy rap sheet and a checkered prison record. But he also suffers from mental illness and spent more time behind bars for a petty offense than many prisoners do for child molestation, rape and other violent crimes.

Wallace's case, like many of the others confronting Ryan, offers an inside look into the usually hidden world of prison discipline and how the state's correctional system treats mentally ill inmates.

Wallace, the youngest of four children, grew up in Watts. In a court declaration, he said his parents divorced when he was young and his father ended up behind bars for robbery and murder. He said his mom often took trips to Las Vegas and left him and his siblings home alone. When she was around, empty bottles of alcohol and marijuana littered the floor. He landed briefly in the foster care system and said he sometimes stole food to keep himself fed.

In his teenage years, things spiraled even further out of control. By 13, he was smoking pot and sniffing glue, and by 17, he was addicted to cocaine, heroin and meth.

He also suffered from seizures and had hallucinations.

"I hear voices that aren't there," he wrote in the declaration. "Sometimes these are voices of dead relatives, sometimes it is the devil."

His crack addiction got worse, and he started to steal to pay for drugs. He served prison time in 1980 for using a knife during a robbery — his first strike — and then again five years later for being a convicted felon in possession of a gun and for breaking into a high school.

After his release, he burglarized a home, taking a TV and bicycle, earning him a second strike. When he was caught, he confessed to 250 other residential burglaries.

Wallace was back on the street on March 8, 1994 — a few hours after three-strikes became California law — when a student at USC saw a man slip a slim jim into a Toyota Corolla parked in a lot near the edge of campus.

A campus security officer arrived a few minutes later to find Wallace sitting in the car, hunched toward the glove compartment. He had a pair of pliers, two screwdrivers and a driver's license and credit card belonging to someone else. A jury convicted him of second-degree burglary, and a judge sentenced him to 25-years-to-life.

Wallace was the third person in L.A. County sentenced under three strikes.

Although he'd been a member of the Crips before his lockup, he severed ties with the gang behind bars to make good on a promise to his sister. He attended AA meetings and went to chapel in prison, according to an interview he gave a forensic psychologist hired recently in his defense. He earned a vocational degree as a janitor.

But he also frequently clashed with inmates and prison guards, including one who accused Wallace of spitting at him but missing.

"I didn't do it," Wallace told an investigator. "I would have hit him if I did try."

Wallace's attorney said his client, who is 5 feet 4 and 120 pounds, sometimes lashed out behind bars to ward off unwanted attention from other inmates. He said Wallace was sexually assaulted during an earlier prison stint.

At a hearing on Wallace's request for resentencing earlier this year, the inmate arrived in a downtown L.A. courtroom in a wheelchair and carrying a legal pad covered in handwritten notes. He flashed a smile at his attorney, Mike Romano, who directs the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law and helped write Proposition 36.

Romano argued that many of his client's prison rule violations were for small things, such as sticking a paper clip into a socket to light a cigarette. Wallace's prison behavior, he said, vastly improved seven years ago after he was diagnosed with kidney disease and he started getting improved treatment for his hallucinations and mood disorder.

Richard Subia, a defense expert and former top official in the state's prison system, testified that he thought many of Wallace's outbursts stemmed from his frequent transfers from one housing section to another. Wallace was moved 15 times. Mentally ill inmates need more stability, he said, and Wallace struggled to readjust to new guards, whom he often found threatening.

"Every year it's like he's being uprooted," Subia said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Cheleden argued that Wallace's lengthy prison record shows that he poses a threat to public safety.

Even after asking a judge to reduce his sentence, Wallace continued to get into trouble. In January, a prison nurse said she saw him punch another inmate in the head. A disciplinary hearing officer found Wallace, now 56, guilty of battery.

"He continues to do violent, threatening actions to people in the prison," the prosecutor said. "He doesn't have the self control not to threaten people."

Under the prison system's own rules, Wallace should have been evaluated by a mental-health expert before his disciplinary hearing for punching the inmate, but he wasn't. After Wallace's appearance in the downtown L.A. courtroom earlier in the year, his attorney asked the prison to dismiss the battery violation.

The prison's chief disciplinary officer wiped it from his record, and Ryan recently ruled that he could not legally consider the dismissed battery.

The judge wrote that he found Wallace's discipline record "troubling at first blush" but attributed much of it to inadequate mental-health treatment behind bars and Wallace's fear of others in prison because of his small stature.

"To be sure," Ryan wrote, "Wallace has a mouth on him and has the ability to act like a jerk."

But the judge noted that almost all of Wallace's violent episodes were years old. In addition, Wallace took several assessments to determine his level of threat to the public and scored in the low range, Ryan said. The judge wrote that Wallace had a solid plan for transitioning from prison life to the Tarzana Treatment Center, a live-in mental-health and drug treatment facility.

At a hearing last month, Ryan reduced Wallace's sentence to six years — a term he'd already served more than three times over. He placed him on supervision by the probation department for a year.

Wallace was released earlier this month. His attorney said his client requires dialysis several days a week and is likely to die within a few days if he leaves the facility and goes without treatment. He said only a handful of the more than 1,910 prisoners released so far under Proposition 36 have been rearrested.

"He's certainly served his punishment," Romano said. "He tried to steal a car radio. Should he be punished? Absolutely. But a life term … is fundamentally unfair."


Twitter: @marisagerber

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