The story of the MRAP – one that the Vanguard broke and has been reported across the country – interestingly enough is not the first time a story broken by the Vanguard has been covered nationwide. In 2010, the Vanguard broke the story of the DA’s office seeking life in prison for a man who had a long criminal record, but whose most recent crime was stealing a $3.99 bag of shredded cheese from the Woodland Nugget.
Eventually, after the Sacramento Bee, New York Times and London Guardian, among others, covered the story, the judge reduced one of the prior strikes and the man was sentenced to a seven-year term for stealing cheese.
The problem with such cases is that, in a time of mass incarceration, a time when we are concerned that potentially dangerous criminals are getting released through AB 109, why would we continue to charge such minor crimes as felonies – even if the prosecutor has the right to seek a felony conviction due to the criminal history?
That is precisely what happened this last week, when the defendant in this case, Michael Stanley, was accused of felony theft of $10.62 of grocery items from the Woodland Food 4 Less.
According to the officer, Food 4 Less had received such a large shipment that items had to be placed in a roofless, but closed, enclosure behind the store.
When a loss prevention officer witnessed the defendant climbing over the enclosure and handing items to a woman nearby, he detained both individuals for theft before calling for additional support. Officer Ruben Esquibel claimed that the defendant took water, noodles, and soda pop from the enclosure, for a total valued at $10.62.
According to the officer, the defendant explained in his statement that he and his pregnant wife were homeless and hungry on the night of the incident. The two claim that they went to Food 4 Less, in an effort to gather thrown out food from backside dumpsters.
Are there better ways the defendant could have gotten food for his pregnant wife? Absolutely. The circumstances do not excuse the defendant committing a crime. But I would argue that, regardless of the circumstances of the crime and the man’s past criminal behavior, we cannot afford to put people who commit such minor crimes into custody.
A few years ago, we saw a similar case where the person was accused of stealing a Godiva chocolate bar from a place at the Woodland Mall. The prosecution again laid out that it should not be reduced to a misdemeanor because of his record with other felony cases, along with a violation of probation.
Once again, in that case Judge Richardson argued that this was a candy bar and that he was not going to charge someone with a felony for a $2.95 candy bar.
We agree that the defendant in the current case exercised poor judgment. The issue of the man’s mental state never really entered the picture, but there has to be a better way than to charge these very low-level crimes as felonies and require people to either be in custody or mandatory supervision – each of which is quite costly to the taxpayers and far exceeds the cost of their theft.
Two remedies that immediately come to mind are, first, we have in Davis the Neighborhood Courts. While to date the DA has used the Neighborhood Court process mainly for victimless crimes, it might be helpful to assign these low level petty theft cases to a Neighborhood Court process.
The defendant in that case would have to take responsibility and understand the nature of the harm he committed – how much food prices get marked up due to problems of shrinkage and the need to hire loss prevention officers. The defendant could learn about the availability of services – whether it is food stamps for the indigent to receive food or community shelter and charitable organizations.
The other remedy is a series of community service obligations that compels the individuals to give back to the community for the time and energy that even their minor crimes cost.
The one remedy that does not seem to make a lot of sense is the current charging policy of the prosecutors. Charging minor crimes as felonies means that we actually end up spending a lot more to incarcerate – whether it is local custody or eventually prison. It means as we overcrowd that potentially more dangerous criminals get released back into society.
It is not that we want to turn a blind eye to small crimes or habitual criminals, it is that we question whether this is the best approach for how to handle those cases.
Judge Rosenberg, like other Yolo County judges before him, thought that there was limited utility to the community to charge Mr. Stanley as a felon for his conduct in this case, but that is not eventually going to help Mr. Stanley escape his criminal past and conduct.
The habitual criminal laws, whether they are three strikes or others, were meant to deal with individuals who commit a series of serious and, most of the time, violent crimes and find a way to increase custody in those situations. While well-intended, that led to the era of mass incarceration in California.
We need to re-think this whole system and find ways to keep people who commit minor crimes out of custody and yet give them the incentive to get the help they really need.
—David M. Greenwald reporting