A Life Sentence for a Bag of Cheese?

April 2nd, 2010 by Kathy McManus

Should a man who shoplifted $3.99 worth of cheese be put away for life?

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The Responsibility Project

Writing in the Sacramento Bee, Marcos Breton called Robert Preston Ferguson—a man who’d been “in and out of prison since the early 1980s”—“the definition of a recidivist criminal.” Last year, Ferguson was arrested in California for stealing a woman’s wallet. Ten days later, he was picked up for shoplifting a $3.99 bag of shredded Tillamook cheese. Because of Ferguson’s prior convictions, which included six burglaries, prosecutors used the state’s “three strikes” law to charge the two petty thefts as felonies, and asked for a life sentence for the “menace to society.”

According to Robert Mackey in the New York Times, Ferguson’s lawyer argued that his earlier burglary convictions “had taken place three decades ago,” and a misdemeanor assault conviction was handed down after a teenage Ferguson tossed a can of soda at a sibling. Some readers wondered if it was irresponsible of cash-strapped California to spend $32,500 a year “to lock up a cheese thief.”

A judge ultimately decided to go “relatively easy” on Ferguson, the Times reported, sentencing him to seven years and eight months in prison. The Bee’s Breton considered the sentence responsible. There is “a good chance Ferguson will victimize someone again,” he wrote. “You wonder if the people screaming about his treatment now would be screaming then, too, asking how it is he ever got back on the street in the first place.”

Tell us what you think: Is the cheese thief’s sentence too harsh, too easy, or does the time fit the crime?