Eye on the Courts: Charging Policies in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Protester-Prison-SpendingThe 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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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28 Comments

  1. Offering Balance

    “Then you do not believe that mental illness or lack of self control can ever play a role in criminal behavior ?”

    Sure that sometimes plays a role. But sometimes people just want to steal because they are too lazy to do anything else, like get services from a shelter.

  2. Offering Balance

    “I think that one thing that is being missed here is that some of these repeat offenders may not be able to change their behavior.”

    The only people missing that are those who are oblivious to the obvious.

      1. South of Davis

        Tia wrote:

        > do not believe that mental illness or lack of self control can ever
        > play a role in criminal behavior ?

        Mental illness and/or lack of self control is a big cause of crime and while it is sad to do it, we need to lock up not just the “bad people” that hurt other people but those with “mental illness or lack of self control” who hurt other people.

        We will have plenty of room in our prisons (and a lot more money to help those with mental illness) if we let ALL the non violent offenders but that will never happen as long as prison guards who make about $100K on average (and many make even double that smuggling stuff in to the prisoners) continue to be the #1 campaign donor in CA (to BOTH the GOP and Dems).

        1. Offering Balance

          Where are you finding the information that the average prison guard makes over 100K. I was thinking about changing careers but my research did not come up with the same information you gave. I sow that some made of 100K but that was with a lot of overtime. Also where are you getting the information that “many” make over 200K smuggling stuff in. What percentage of correctional officers comprise “many”?

          As far as political contributions, have you ever heard of the California Teachers Association?

          1. Offering Balance

            Well it appears the fastest way to end a discussion is to ask for facts to support an assertion.

  3. Tia Will

    I think that one thing that is being missed here is that some of these repeat offenders may not be able to change their behavior.
    People are variable in their ability to comprehend cause and effect and in their ability to exercise impulse control. I have seen this first hand in my own family ( my sister has very little comprehension of cause and effect which has since childhood limited her ability to function in the world outside her home – luckily it did not involve criminal behavior) and I have met many, many patients who are unable to understand this basic concept. Incarcerating these folks will not change their behavior because they simply do not understand the world in the conventionally accepted manner.

    I believe that the best way to handle this situation is to have them restore in some way the value of what they have stolen to the victim. I would see this as probably implemented through some means of monitored work and living situation which leaves the victim’s monetary value if not their trust restored and the perpetrator doing something constructive with their time in a highly structured setting which does not cost us 50 K per year and yet provides the needed structure and supervision.

      1. Tia Will

        Well I guess that just goes to show that I don’t necessarily hold with the beliefs of any one way of seeing the world be it “secular left”, Chirisitanity, Judaism or any other “ism” as being infallible.

        Every religion ever conceived by man is subject to human error and lack of knowledge. None, in my opinion represent “absolute truth” but rather an organized way of viewing the world subject to change as further information is gained. Where people truly get into trouble is when they believe that their particular way of seeing the world is the only way.

    1. theotherside

      So our assumption is that Mr Stanley and some of these repeat offenders lack the mental capacity to discern right from wrong? That’s a mighty big assumption when logic would dictate that Mr Stanley either doesn’t care or he lacks the ability to keep his hands off of other people’s stuff. Logic would further dictate that Mr Stanley’s attorney, like all other defense attorney’s, is aware that mental capacity is a legitimate defense, even in minor offenses. So I will assume since his mental capacity was not brought up before or during this preliminary hearing, Mr Stanley understands full well that his actions were wrong. And just to reiterate, reformative justice and diversion has more likely than not been tried on this individual and not worked.

      If government assistance worked, we would be seeing signs of it. Right now there is an unprecedented 10 million Americans are receiving government aid and yet crime stats remain the same. Assistance is only keeping people in poverty while adding to a 17 trillion dollar deficit. Don’t believe me? Look at City’s run by the left and weighing heavy on aid…Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC…all being destroyed by the idea that the government knows what is best and can take care of it’s population.

  4. Offering Balance

    “why not look at restorative models that don’t assume people can’t adhere to societies norms just because they haven’t.”

    Are you assuming people will change their proven pattern?

        1. David Greenwald

          When Sajutha Baliga came to town, she described a restorative process she was involved with in Florida where a boyfriend killed his girlfriend. In that case, they agreed to a reduced sentence and when the individual was released, he had to work to rectify the situation. The people involved in neighborhood court have described in great detail how the process has worked without a victim – they address the problems that the individual has, they have to acknowledge the wrong, the harm they have done, and then create a pan to make society (the victim in these cases) whole. It is really not that different with a victim involved as well. If done right, it can be a powerful process and starts dealing with the core issues rather than just the behavior. They have had a lot of success for instance in Fresno where they have a VORP (Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program).

          1. Offering Balance

            I agree it is too expensive to house people for minor crimes and I think a restorative justice model could work for some people. My question is what do we do with the people who will not conform and continue to steal? Restorative justice will not work for everyone and nobody goes to prison when they only bad thing they’ve ever done is steal a candy bar.

            David, at what point do YOU think enough is enough and we have to put repeat thieves in jail? Myself and others have asked this and similar questions before and so there has been no answer.

            How many times must someone be convicted of minor theft related crimes before they go to prison?

          2. David Greenwald

            To me, you can put people into prison for brief periods of time, but unless they commit violent crimes, I think we need to figure out alternative longer term arrangements. There is little evidence that putting people into prison (by itself) changes behavior.

      1. Edgar Wai

        “the bottom line is the cost issue”

        The damage is so low that the cost of having a restorative process, setting it up, sending mail, talking, would cost more than the damage. But I think the goal of a restorative process is to change the mind of the convict so that the convict could end up repaying society there after, so the restorative process would pay for itself.

  5. theotherside

    So how many chances do we give habitual offenders? Felony petty theft with a priors used to only require one previous conviction, that was changed to 3. And that was not counting cases in which diversion was the sentence. So when someone gets to a felony charge of petty theft we are really looking at their 5th or 6th charged offense, which I’ll guarantee is no where close to their actual offenses. At some point we have to realize some of these offenders just don’t get it, there has to be consequences to their actions. Adhere to societies norms or be taken out of it.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “So how many chances do we give habitual offenders? ”

      the real question is how much do you want to spend on someone who commits lots of crimes that are minor. i get the need to put away dangerous criminals, but when you’re talking petty theft, it seems that spending $50K a year on incarceration does no one any good. even if you could cut that cost in half (which is pushing it), why? for a ten dollar theft?

      “So when someone gets to a felony charge of petty theft we are really looking at their 5th or 6th charged offense, which I’ll guarantee is no where close to their actual offenses.”

      maybe, but you’re assuming those numbers and you still have the cost-benefit ratio to work through.

      “Adhere to societies norms or be taken out of it.”

      why not look at restorative models that don’t assume people can’t adhere to societies norms just because they haven’t.

  6. theotherside

    “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.”

    Good idea. However, the neighborhood court is set up for first time offenders with no criminal record..not a minimum of 3 theft related convictions.

    “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.”

    Another great idea. So great someone has already had it. It is called “diversion” and is usually the sentence for first and second time theft offenders. I would imagine that Mr Stanley was already sentenced to this prior to his minimum of three prior convictions before he was charged with this felony.

    So since we already have these programs that do not seem to be working, how about we hold people accountable for their actions. The neighborhood court and diversion programs likely work on most offenders. For the rest that do not get the picture and continue to commit thefts, how about we lock them up as an example of what happens when you commit a crime? It’s not just Food 4 Less, it is you, the citizen, that also suffers from these petty thefts. The stolen bikes, the thefts from your unlocked vehicles, the tools from your open garages. It’s easy to not feel bad for a corporation, but how about your neighbor whose beach cruiser disappears in the middle of the day. Personal responsibility is a thing of the past apparently.

    1. David Greenwald

      “Good idea. However, the neighborhood court is set up for first time offenders with no criminal record..not a minimum of 3 theft related convictions. ”

      THe specific program is, but the idea has much wider applications elsewhere.

    2. Frankly

      I agree with this. I think the propensity to make a victim out of a thief is a slippery slope. Wrong is wrong. I am fine supporting a restorative justice approach for the first “mistake”, but beyond that we are ignoring a behavior pattern, that when multiplied to include multiple people, becomes quite damaging to others.

  7. Offering Balance

    “it might be helpful to assign these low level petty theft cases to a Neighborhood Court process.”

    Entering a building with the intent to commit theft is not petty theft. It is burglary.

    “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.”

    Incorrect. Penal Code 666 covers crimes like the one committed at Food 4 Less. How many times must someone not only steal but be CONVICTED of stealing before we say enough is enough and lock them up for a while?

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