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Pregnancy alters sentence in crash

Judge places woman on probation, drawing criticism from family of a man who died in a hit-and-run.

September 27, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Last February, a former college student was sentenced to six years and four months in prison for fleeing after drunkenly plowing into a psychiatrist out walking his dog.

But this month, Heather Hulsey, 22, was released on probation by a Santa Barbara County judge who ordered her into a residential substance abuse program.

Her fortunes changed because of an unexpected pregnancy -- an event that, according to the victim's family and prosecutors, unfairly flung open the penitentiary gates for a prisoner who behaved badly even after her arrest.

Advocates for women in the penal system generally praise the goal of keeping an incarcerated mother and her child together. That was the logic expressed in court by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank J. Ochoa.

"I've made the determination that I don't want your child to grow up without a mother," he told Hulsey on Sept. 15. "You've seen jail now, you've seen prison now. I'm presuming it's a place you do not want to go back to."

But critics of Ochoa's controversial decision see it as a "get out of jail free card" to women trying to have their sentences reduced.

"Justice has been blindsided by this complication in a case that seems pretty straightforward otherwise," said Lincoln Shlensky, whose father, Ronald Shlensky, 71, died in the 2006 hit-and-run. "If this judgment stands, will women be eligible for release merely on the basis of pregnancy?"

In court, the judge said he changed Hulsey's sentence to keep her and her then-unborn son together.

Hulsey's baby was due Sept. 21. It was unclear Friday whether the child had been born.

During his remarks, Ochoa said that Hulsey would spend the same length of time in "the same exact kind of facility" she would have been in if she had qualified for the Community Prison Mother Program run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But even if the facilities were identical, reducing Hulsey's prison sentence to probation "sets a terrible precedent," said Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Arnis Tolks.

"I don't have evidence that she did this on purpose, but I wouldn't put it past her -- or other women in her position who hear about this," Tolks said.

Corrections officials had given contradictory signals to Ochoa and attorneys in the case as to whether Hulsey would be eligible for the Community Prison Mother Program, which places female prisoners and their children in highly supervised, homelike settings. On Friday, they said that during her stay at Valley State Prison for Women, she had been classified as too high a risk.

On probation, Hulsey will live with her baby in a Ventura home run by Prototypes, a nonprofit recovery program that contracts with the corrections department to provide help for female offenders and their children. After a year, she may be placed in another maternal sober living program to serve out the equivalent of her remaining prison term -- a total of three years and two months, including halftime credits.

Had she remained in prison, her child would have been raised by her family until she got out, according to court documents.

The case has been closely followed in Santa Barbara.

Ronald Shlensky, an attorney as well as a physician, specialized in forensic psychiatry -- the study of mental disorders and the legal issues that surround them. He was walking near his home in affluent Montecito when he was hit on the evening of July 27, 2006. He died the next day.

Hulsey, a Santa Barbara City College student whose family had recently moved to a home near Shlensky, was arrested a week later. In the interim, her father had brought her battered vehicle to a shop for bodywork, apparently believing her story that it had been dented by golf balls, according to court testimony.

Even after her arrest, she posted photos of herself drinking on a MySpace page, and served 30 days in jail for public drunkenness at a UC Santa Barbara music festival.

Last December, she pleaded no contest to charges of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident.

At a recovery program she attended before her February sentencing, she met the man who fathered her child.

Hulsey's attorney, Mindi Boulet of the Santa Barbara County public defender's office, was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.

In court filings, she said Hulsey did not know she was pregnant when she was sentenced.

When she realized it later, Boulet said, "she was terribly frightened of the possibility of physical violence from other inmates that could cause harm to the baby, and the prospect of not being able to hold, nurture and love the baby after giving birth."

"Ms. Hulsey, who had always maintained a position against abortion, could not bring herself to be responsible for the taking of another life and decided to keep her baby," Boulet said.

If she violates the terms of her probation, Hulsey could be sent back to prison.

For Shlensky's family, that's cold comfort.

"The fact is that a sentence was changed because a woman irresponsibly got pregnant," said Santa Barbara grant writer Sheba Lux, one of Shlensky's daughters. "Justice should be gender-neutral: How many men are in the prison system who are separated from babies at home?"

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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