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After Three Strikes

In L.A. County, one judge decides whom a new law lets out of prison.

The question is not whether Carlos Lopez has committed serious crimes. There’s no doubt about that. In his 48 years, the shaven-headed, heftily mustached Lopez has dealt drugs, hurt people, and killed a man. The question confronting Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan is not whether he’s guilty, but whether he should be set free.

Early on a winter afternoon, Lopez, dressed in prison blues, is sitting in a seventh-floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, staring up at Ryan. Lopez is serving a life sentence thanks to California’s Three Strikes law, which mandated 25 years to life for repeat felons, even if the third offense was as picayune as shoplifting. Voters passed that law in 1994, at the height of anti-crime fervor. Sobered by accounts of small-time criminals getting locked up for life and by the cost of the state’s overflowing prisons, voters in 2012 passed Proposition 36, which declared that only a serious or violent crime could be counted as a third strike. This meant that more than 3,000 three-strikers were suddenly eligible to ask a court to reduce their sentences.

Los Angeles County is home to more than a thousand of these inmates. Ryan, a beefy, droopy-eyed man in his 60s, is the gatekeeper who determines the fate of each one of them. It’s his job to review all of their cases, decide who is suitable to be resentenced, and then do the resentencing.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Ryan used to be a manager for a national auto-parts chain. In his 30s, sick of the cold and the snow, he lit out for Los Angeles, where he earned a degree from Southwestern Law School in 1986. After several years as a litigator for a large private firm, he won a judge’s seat in 1994. Ryan spent time in courthouses all over L.A. County before accepting a post as director of the county’s Criminal Division’s Writs Center, which handles post-­conviction appeals. The Proposition 36 cases were added to his portfolio largely because of his reputation as a balanced jurist — a nonjudgmental judge. He voted for both Three Strikes and Proposition 36.

These days, he works out of chambers next to the courtroom, with a handsome view of downtown. It’s decorated with lithographs of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and a photograph of Winston Churchill. The first Prop 36 petition arrived the day before the measure had even passed. “They came in like a hurricane,” says Ryan. “There were just mountains of files in the clerk’s office. I was taking anything that came in.”

Lopez’s case is about the 560th Ryan has presided over in the past three years. The first couple hundred, he says, were easy calls, involving inmates so old or enfeebled or otherwise unthreatening that the district attorney didn’t oppose their resentencing. But now Ryan is into the tougher cases, offenders like Lopez whom the DA is fighting to keep behind bars.

Lopez’s criminal history fills a folder 2 inches thick. As a member of the Florencia 13 gang who was known variously as Spanky, Spider, or Zorro, Lopez racked up a string of arrests starting in high school. Then in 1986 he shot a man in the leg. Strike one. The next year, Lopez got in a squabble with another guy over a $10 bag of marijuana and shot him dead. Strike two. His third strike, though, was more Brooklyn Nine-Nine than The Wire. Early one morning in 1997, while out on parole, Lopez and another man broke into a Ford Econoline van, aiming to steal a gardener’s lawn mowers and leaf blowers. When the cops rolled up, as the district attorney’s report put it, Lopez and his confederate “abandoned the van, discarding gardening tools as they fled in different directions.”

A three-striker must go through two steps to win resentencing. First is an eligibility hearing to determine whether his third offense meets the Prop 36 definition of serious or violent. If it doesn’t, the offender moves on to a suitability hearing, in which a judge determines whether he would pose an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” if released. (Ryan handles all the eligibility hearings, but the suitability caseload has become so backed up that three more judges took some over in March.) To make that decision, Ryan considers not only the offender’s crimes but what he’s done since committing them. “I look at whether they’ve improved over time, and their age,” Ryan says. “Once guys hit 40 and especially 50, the likelihood of committing violent acts goes way down.”

Lopez’s hearing plays out like a miniature trial. As an elderly interpreter whispers in his ear, a deputy public defender and a deputy DA haggle over the significance of his misdeeds, from his decades-old murder conviction to his refusal last year to take down a sheet covering his cell window. Lopez’s prison record hasn’t been spotless. He was caught making a half-gallon of moonshine, a violation that Ryan dryly notes occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. More significant are charges of participating in a riot and assaulting other inmates and a guard.

None of these is as damning as it appears, insists Lopez’s lawyer. Getting caught up in riots and fights between inmates are unavoidable parts of prison life, he says. As for the guard assault, the correctional officer who claimed Lopez tried to punch him might have overreacted. Ryan listens with crossed arms, occasionally running a thumbnail backward under his chin. He cuts the attorneys off several times to urge them out of the procedural weeds and back to the point.

Ryan has resentenced most of the three-strikers he’s seen. Inevitably, there have been problems. He’s heard that one prisoner he let out nearly killed someone driving drunk; another tried to kidnap a 12-year-old girl. “There are no guarantees,” he says. “If you want to guarantee public safety, keep everyone who’s ever committed a crime locked up. But then how much do you want to pay in taxes?”

Overall, though, the recidivism rate for those released under Prop 36 has been low, partly because of their age and partly because counties are helping them find jobs, therapy, and housing. As of late February, a few more than 2,000 had been set free; only 5 percent have wound up back behind bars, far less than the state’s overall recidivism rate of about 45 percent.

At afternoon’s end, Lopez is handcuffed and led out of the courtroom. There’s no dramatic finale to the proceedings. It took Ryan several weeks to come back with a decision. Citing Lopez’s history of violence and his lackluster record of involvement with educational and rehabilitative programs in prison, Ryan denied Lopez’s petition, consigning him to finish out his life sentence. “Petitioner’s predicament,” wrote Ryan, “is due to his own conduct.”