What is the proper punishment for shoplifting? David Warriner, an unemployed man, stole four cans of sardines, shaving cream and razors from a Rite Aid in downtown Spokane, and he was sentenced to 29 months in prison. See article. A day later in the newspaper, I read about Father Tim Jones’ opinion on shoplifting. See article. Father Tim Jones created a stir by offering the following advice to the desperately poor:
“My advice as a Christian priest is to shoplift…. I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. … I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses — knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices….”
What would Father Tim Jones say about a 29 month prison sentence for stealing sardines? Certainly Rite Aid would qualify as one of the “large national businesses.” Spokane Deputy Prosecutor David Stevens sought the lengthy sentence on David Warriner because of Warriner’s extensive criminal history. In fact, Warriner was originally charged with Burglary – not because he broke in to Rite Aid, but because he had been asked not go into Rite Aid again, anywhere in the country. This arguably would meet the elements of burglary under RCW 9A.52.030 which defines the crime as entering a building unlawfully with the intent of committing a crime therein. David Warriner entered a plea deal down to felony theft second degree, even though the items he stole were just worth $32.
The ethics of what a suitable punishment is for such a crime create an interesting issue. However, I will leave that for others to debate. My question is this: Can we as a society really afford to house a man in prison for 2 1/2 years simply for stealing sardines? Is it good judgment for a public official to decide to expend the State’s resources to punish David Warriner in this manner? The legislature has been forced to release violent criminals back onto the streets due to budget restraints. It used to be that inmates only received 1/6 to 1/3 “good time” off their sentence. Olympia has now been forced to give most inmates 1/2 time off their sentence for good behavior. When a prosecutor seeks a certain sentence for a defendant, this does not occur in a vacuum. Any inmate serving 2 1/2 years for stealing sardines is taking up a prison bed that could be used for a dangerous sex offender. It may be that prosecutor David Stevens had his reasons in this particular case, but I use this instance to discuss the greater problem that I see, prosecutors often not looking a the bigger picture. (Last month, I blogged about prison sentences and budget cut backs here). When I looked up the Washington sentencing guidelines, it appears that David Warriner faced a standard range of 22-29 months. Judge Maryann Moreno had the discretion to sentence Warriner to only 22 months in prison, but decided on a sentence of 29 months. The Judge explained to Warriner: “Your past history is the reason why you’re going to prison …. We generally don’t send people to prison for this type of crime unless they come in with a history like yours.” The article did not mention who Mr. Warriner’s criminal defense lawyer was.
What do you think? Should Judge Maryann Moreno have considered a lighter sentence? Shoplifting usually receives a punishment of anywhere from a day or two to maybe thirty days. What about other minor crimes such as fishing without a license, or possession of drug paraphernalia, or public intoxication? If a person has a lengthy record, should the prosecutor in Spokane County seek to impose the maximum punishment allowed by law?