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Hard time for stealing a soft drink

April 24, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • Jerry Dewayne Williams, then 27, during his sentencing in 1996, when he got 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza.
Jerry Dewayne Williams, then 27, during his sentencing in 1996, when he… (Los Angeles Times )

Florida, it seems, has just gotten its very own Jerry Dewayne Williams.

Mark Abaire, who has a history of petty theft in addition to an evident attitude problem, walked into a McDonald's restaurant in East Naples, Fla., recently and asked for a free courtesy cup. You're supposed to take this cup to the soda machine and fill it with water, but Abaire allegedly cheated: He filled it with about $1 worth of soda instead. When a manager asked him to pay, Abaire allegedly cursed at him and refused to leave, prompting employees to call police. In a world of sanity and justice, Abaire would have received a severe dressing-down by officers, and continued recalcitrance might even have justified a petty theft charge. But did I mention this happened in Florida?

That state, like California, has a three-strikes law, and Abaire had a history of petty theft violations. So he's being charged with a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

If the idea of giving a soda stealer an equivalent sentence to an armed robber seems offensive, it's nothing compared to what happened to Williams, who embodied the controversy over California's three-strikes law in the mid-1990s. A habitual felon with a long criminal history, he stole a slice of pizza from some kids near the Redondo Beach Pier and, thanks to the newly enacted law, ended up being sentenced to life in prison. Since Williams there have been plenty of other examples of inappropriate sentencing, including convicts given life terms for shoplifting vitamins or golf clubs.

Tough-on-crime types argue that three-strikes laws work because they get habitual criminals such as Abaire and Williams off the streets; even if they end up doing far more time than the seriousness of their crimes would justify, such offenders have had ample chances to go straight and have demonstrated they can't be trusted to live among the rest of us. It sounds reasonable, but it's bunk. These laws take discretion out of the hands of judges who would otherwise impose more sensible terms, crowd our prisons and may do nothing to deter crime (statistics on that are tough to analyze because crime actually rose after California passed three strikes, then dropped -- no one has demonstrated a conclusive connection). Some believe these laws endanger police because third-strikers sometimes take desperate measures to escape arrest. And a simple sense of fairness and decency would lead most people to conclude that putting someone in prison for stealing $1 worth of soda is not a reasonable approach to criminal justice.

Williams, by the way, didn't end up in prison for life. A court ruling that said judges could overlook previous convictions in third-strike cases prompted a judge to overturn his sentence, so he was released in 1999 after serving five years; Times staff writer Jack Leonard caught up with him in 2010 with an interesting profile. Here's hoping judges in Florida find a way to prevent a similar injustice for Abaire. Meanwhile, there's a chance wiser heads will prevail in California: An initiative may be headed for the November ballot that would mandate maximum sentences only for third-strikers who have committed serious or violent crimes. That seems more along the lines of what voters had in mind when they approved the law in 1994, and would avoid absurdities such as Williams' original sentence. And just as the original three-strikes law eventually migrated to Florida, three-strikes reform might do the same.

RELATED:

George Soros gives $500,000 to effort to narrow three-strikes law

D.A. candidates must be clear on where they stand on three-strikes

Tim Rutten: A prison system we deserve

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