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Nothing to snicker at

I don’t eat a lot of candy, but when I do, Snickers is at the top of my list of favorites. The candymaker’s onetime slogan was “Hungry? Grab a Snickers.” When it comes to the actions of a York County man, we probably need to modify this to “Hungry? Grab a Snickers. Don’t forget to pay for it.”

Blaine Hildebrand, 70, of Jackson Township, a York suburb, was arrested earlier this month on charges that he shoplifted a $2.19 Snickers bar at a Rutter’s convenience store near his home.

Since this is his third retail theft charge in 28 years, the state Crime Code regards this as a felony, rather than a summary offense or misdemeanor, meaning that Hildebrand faces 3½ to 7 years of jail time and a $15,000 fine.

His case has captured nationwide attention as experts and lay people debate either side of the controversial case.

William Schwenck Gilbert, a 19th century English playwright and humorist, part of the famed operetta team of Gilbert and Sullivan, gave us the oft-quoted “let the punishment fit the crime.”

So that’s what we have here: Should we sentence a 70-year-old man to serious jail time, even if it turns out that he is guilty of his third shoplifting offense?

My prediction is that the judge who rules in the case will not make an example of Hildebrand, especially because of his age. If he were younger, it might be a different story.

Hildebrand was sentenced to two years probation after his second conviction in 2012 and ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation. After the first charge in 1993, he was placed into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which permits first-time nonviolent offenders to avoid conviction and to clear their criminal record as long as they perform court-ordered requirements.

In the past decade, there have been similar cases in Texas and Louisiana, both also involving the theft of Snickers bars. These states also have harsh penalties for repeat or serial retail theft perpetrators. In both of these cases, which also touched off national outrage, the sentencings were much more muted than the statutes called for.

The Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has put the Hildebrand case on its radar. ACLU attorney Nyssa Taylor told the York Dispatch that there is no reason why a 70-year-old man should be facing seven years in jail for stealing a candy bar “This is one of the things that we have really been pushing the Legislature to change and to stop allowing,” Taylor said.

The controversy surrounding significant jail time for relatively minor thefts has gone on for centuries. One of literature’s most famous novels, Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” published in the mid-19th century, focuses on this theme.

Its main character, Jean Valjean, stole a loaf of bread from a local baker by breaking a window. Charged with burglary at night of an inhabited house, he told authorities that he was destitute after losing his job and stole the bread to feed his sister’s children who were under his care. Valjean was imprisoned for five years.

In responding to public outrage, legislators add new crimes and increase penalties, especially for repeat offenders such as Hildebrand. These types of harsh punishments for nonviolent offenders overcrowd our jails. Not only that, but civil rights advocates see it as a weaponization against specific demographic and economic groups.

As anyone who owns or operates a business will tell you, shoplifting is one of the most prominent problems that eat into profits. It’s hardly new. My parents ran a small grocery store in my hometown of Summit Hill, and my father had to contend with frequent shoplifting issues.

It was a delicate issue that required toughness or compassion, depending on the circumstances. For example, he would tell the story of a man who would steal an apple or orange every time he came into the store.

My father knew the man was poor and struggled to provide for his large family, so he never confronted him and would often give him a discount or not charge him for some purchases.

One factor missing in the discussion of the Hildebrand case is the possibility of kleptomania, an impulse control disorder that results in an irresistible urge to steal. We have all heard of cases of members of well-off families who shoplift for the thrill and excitement of it.

While the Hildebrand case has gotten a lot of attention as a news oddity, I don’t believe we appreciate the societal implications that shoplifting has on all of us, even if we are not among the perpetrators.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.