Monday, August 16, 2010
California Taxpayers' $227,500 Cheese
Cheese Thief Jailed for 7 Years in California
On Monday, August 15, 2010, more than a year after a man was arrested outside a market in California with a $3.99 bag of Tillamook shredded cheese in his pants he had not paid for, a judge decided to go relatively easy on him, sentencing him to seven years and eight months in jail. He could have gotten a life sentence.
Prosecutors in Yolo County, Calif., outside Sacramento, had originally asked for a life sentence under the state’s “three strikes” law, arguing that the man, Robert Preston Ferguson, was a menace to society because of prior burglary convictions. As The Sacramento Bee reported last month, the district attorney’s office asked for 11 years instead, after “a new psychological evaluation convinced prosecutors that Robert Preston Ferguson’s most recent convictions for petty theft did not warrant a life sentence.”
At Monday’s sentencing hearing, the Sacramento newspaper noted, a deputy district attorney “said Ferguson was a career criminal who wouldn’t change.” The prosecutor added that Mr. Ferguson, who is in his 50s, had 13 previous convictions and had been in jail for 22 of the past 27 years but still took the cheese. Ten days before the cheese theft, Mr. Ferguson had also stolen a woman’s wallet from a 7-Eleven as she tended to her sick child, who had just thrown up on the floor.
Because of Mr. Ferguson’s prior convictions, he had been charged with felonies for both of those petty thefts.
According to the Sacramento newspaper, Mr. Ferguson’s defense lawyer, Monica Brushia, argued that his six other burglary convictions had taken place three decades ago and noted that his conviction for misdemeanor assault came when he was a teenager and had thrown a can of soda at one of his siblings. She also noted that the psychologist’s report had concluded that Mr. Ferguson was mentally ill. He has biploar syndrome and struggles to control his impulses to steal during manic phases, she said.
She concluded that his most recent thefts were petty. “We’re talking about a pack of cheese,” she said.
Leaving aside concerns about whether the long sentence was just, some observers in California asked if the cash-strapped state should really be spending between $50,000 and $100,000 a year to lock up a cheese thief.
As Sasha Abramsky noted in a commentary on the case for The Guardian last month, “a number of newspapers, including conservative publications such as the Orange County Register, ridiculed the D.A.’s office for its willingness to waste taxpayer dollars.”
The Orange County newspaper compared the case with that of Jerry Dewayne Williams, a man in Los Angeles who was sentenced in 1995 to 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza.
In his column for The Guardian, Mr. Abramsky added:
Three strikes is something that I have written on quite a bit over the years; I have talked with many three strikers and their families, and periodically receive updates from them on their status. This past Christmas I got a card from the wife of one inmate, who has spent the last 16 years behind bars on a drug-related offence. “It is hard to believe that nearly 16- years have gone by and we still have another 12 before D** will be eligible for parole,” she wrote. “You would think that with all of California’s budget problems, someone in Sacramento would realize that 16 years for a minor offence is long enough.”
A columnist for Sacramento Bee, Marcos Breton, took the opposite view, arguing on Wednesday that this “shoplifter with a sad life” deserves to be in jail:
The truth is, there is a good chance Ferguson will victimize someone again. He has nearly 30 years’ experience as a career criminal. What if he breaks into a home, stumbles in on a family and panics?
You wonder if the people screaming about his treatment now would be screaming then, too, asking how it is he ever got back on the street in the first place.
Update: Thanks to a reader for drawing our attention to a report in The Los Angeles Times last month on a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in which he criticized California’s sentencing policies. The report noted:
In an otherwise courtly and humorous address to the Los Angeles legal community, Kennedy expressed obvious dismay over the state of corrections and rehabilitation in the country. He said U.S. sentences are eight times longer than those issued by European courts.
“California now has 185,000 people in prison at $32,500 a year” each, he said. That's $6 Billion a year to keep one half of one per cent of the population in prison. He then urged voters and officials to compare that expense to what taxpayers spend per pupil in elementary schools. “The three-strikes law sponsor is the correctional officers’ union and that is sick!” Kennedy said of the measure mandating life sentences for third-time criminal offenders.