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Dumb Kid, Petty Crimes: a Life Term?

Three strikes: Where's the justice in giving a socially retarded teen a no-parole prison term for stealing a cell phone?

July 24, 1998|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick is writing a book about California's three-strikes law

Earlier this month, Andre Wilks stubbornly refused to take the seven-year sentence in state prison that had been offered him by Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey. Under California's 1994 three-strikes law, he is now in prison for the rest of his life for breaking a car window and stealing a cell phone.

Three-strikes' principal author was Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer whose daughter Kimber was brutally murdered when she was 18, the same age as Wilks when he stole the cell phone. But there is a deeper connection between Kimber Reynolds and Andre Wilks. Several months ago, Reynolds told me of his law's hidden agenda: to lock up young, petty, often nonviolent criminals like Wilks "during the time when they would have, or easily could have, committed violent crimes." Could have.

Like Mike Reynolds, Lacey believes in being hard on criminals. Nevertheless, before the trial she took the extraordinary step of urging Wilks to take the seven-year deal. She told him she had an open-and-shut case against him, but that she would eliminate one of the "strikes," which still meant he would have to serve at least seven years. But Wilks refused the deal.

Wilks' public defender, Richard Petherbridge, and Lacey both think that Wilks naively refused to believe that he could possibibly receive life for his theft and that he also feared serving time in an adult prison among grown men.

Wilks grew up in the San Fernando Valley on welfare and without a father, was arrested for petty thefts at ages 9 and 13 and at 16 received his first two strikes--both on the same April evening. In a stolen car, Wilks had driven to various Valley supermarkets and malls and with an accomplice robbed five women of their purses. Whether a gun was used is in dispute; none was ever found and no one was hurt. But Wilks was persuaded to plead guilty to two counts of armed robbery.

Petherbridge describes Wilks as undisciplined and bumbling, a short, slender kid with few skills whose mother lost control of him early on. Wilks rode to the scene of the cell phone theft on his bicycle, Petherbridge noted, and stole the cell phone at the suggestion of his 12-year-old partner. Moreover, after serving two years under the California Youth Authority for stealing the purses in the Valley, he was placed, at age 18, in the ninth grade among 14-year-olds. His basic academic skills were those of a fifth-grader. And as a thief he was so guileless that he burst out crying on the witness stand when Lacey caught him in a lie.

I have little sympathy for Wilks. No society can tolerate being terrorized by purse snatchers, whatever their age or vulnerability.

However, it's also clear that Wilks perfectly fits the category of so many young men being sentenced for nonviolent crimes under the three-strikes law: those with a potentially dangerous pathology, an unfulfilled promise, who are confused and desperate but not yet hardened criminals. Three strikes was a vote for hardheaded realism. But how realistic is it to warehouse Wilks in a state prison system with little or no rehabilitative programs for the next 50 years, at a cost of more than $1 million?

And how just is a system that locks up an 18-year-old, socially retarded, out-of-touch petty thief for the rest of his life for stealing a cell phone? Marc Klaas, who opposed California's three-strikes law despite the fact that his daughter Polly's unspeakable killing helped propel it to passage, said it best: "I've had my car broken into and my radio stolen and I've had my daughter murdered, and I know the difference."

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