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Let the punishment fit the crime

The disparity in the law can make our heads spin at times. On one hand, we see defendants who commit serious crimes plead guilty to lesser charges and get off with the proverbial slap on the wrist.

Then we have Joseph Sobolewski, a homeless man who is facing jail time of up to seven years for underpaying 43 cents for a bottle of Mountain Dew.

I am not making this up: Sobolewski was at an Exxon station in Duncannon, a community of about 1,500 some 15 miles north of Harrisburg in Perry County. He saw a sign showing patrons could buy two 20-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew for $3. Sobolewski plunked down his last two bucks and was about to leave.

Not so fast, said the clerk. It seems Sobolewski missed the fine print on the Mountain Dew special - two for $3, but it was $2.29 for a single bottle. With sales tax, the bill came to $2.43. Sobolewski didn’t have the additional 43 cents.

Even worse, this was Sobolewski’s third brush with the state’s retail theft law, a three-strikes-and-you’re-out situation. So if Sobolewski is convicted, he could go to jail for up to seven years and even be fined up to $15,000.

It’s preposterous, and Pennsylvania is just one of the states that has these draconian laws for repeat offenders.

Most of these headline-grabbing cases involve defendants who walk off with goods, but this poor guy figured he was buying the Mountain Dew in good faith and even expected to get back 41 cents change from his purchase.

We don’t know what kind of verbal exchange went on between Sobolewski and the store clerk, but state police arrested Sobolewski later on this felony charge. After a third retail theft charge, the ante is upped from a misdemeanor to a felony, which can lead to a big-time prison term.

A spokesperson for the state police said the third offense automatically becomes a felony, regardless of the dollar amount of the theft, even if it is as little as 43 cents.

The state police are saying, in essence, don’t blame us. Troopers cannot decide to ignore someone in a criminal case once a complaint is made. It’s up to the complainant to decide not to press charges. “If we’re called to an incident involving a crime, we follow up and enforce the state Crimes Code,” the state police spokesperson said.

It’s reminiscent of the Snickers candy bar case I wrote about early this year. Blaine Hildebrand of Jackson Township, a York suburb, was arrested on charges that he shoplifted a $2.19 Snickers bar at a Rutter’s convenience store near his home.

I subscribe to the theory advanced by William Schwenck Gilbert, a 19th century English playwright and humorist, part of the famed operetta team of Gilbert and Sullivan, who said, “let the punishment fit the crime.”

What’s at work here with this three-strikes-and-you’re-out law is that it was pushed really hard by the business community a few years back, because, let’s face it, shoplifting is pervasive and costly. It affects all of us consumers, because the cost of this “shrinkage” is passed along to us in the form of higher prices.

As anyone who owns or operates a business will tell you, shoplifting is one of the most prominent problems that eats into profits. It’s hardly new. My parents ran a small grocery store in my hometown of Summit Hill for 35 years, and my father had to contend with frequent shoplifting issues.

It was a delicate issue that required my dad’s toughness or compassion, depending on the circumstances. That is the leeway possible with mom-and-pop operations, but when it comes to these large convenience store chains such as Rutter’s Exxon and Wawa, hired hands often can’t use their discretion but instead are mandated to follow company policies.

In responding to public outrage, legislators add new crimes and increase penalties, especially for repeat offenders such as Sobolewski and 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.

In theory, it makes sense to try to make examples of repeat offenders, but when it comes to the realization that you are going to send a 70-year-old man to prison for up to seven years for stealing a candy bar, unless you are really hardhearted, you can see where such a sentence does not fit the crime, even for a third offense.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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