Prison sentence

20 Years in Prison for Florida Man Who Swiped $600 Worth of Cigarettes

He has prior felony convictions, but 20 years still seems harsh.


Escambia County Jail

A Florida man stole $600 worth of cigarettes from a convenience store in Pensacola. As a result, he'll spend the next two decades behind bars.

Robert Spellman's crime doesn't appear to have been violent. He was able to get into a locked office in the stock room of a Circle K, where he took 10 cartons of cigarettes. Police quickly found him nearby with the stolen smokes in his possession. In August, he was convicted of burglary and grand theft.

Last week Judge Jan Shackelford of the First Judicial Circuit Court of Florida sentenced him to 20 years in state prison.

Two decades for stealing some cigarettes may seem harsh, but it is unsurprising for Florida. Under state law, repeat offenders often get longer prison sentences if they have prior felony convictions; Spellman's criminal past includes convictions for 14 felonies and 31 misdemeanors. And in Florida, stealing $300 worth of property is enough to warrant a conviction for grand theft.

Florida needs sentencing reform, and a case documented last year by former Reason Foundation Director of Criminal Justice Reform Lauren Krisai shows why. In December 2015, Latasha Wingster stole less than $15 worth of wine coolers from Walmart, but due to two prior petty theft convictions, her third offense was classified as a felony. As a result, Wingster was sentenced to two years behind bars.

Spellman's case isn't as egregious as that one, but Krisai, who now works at the Justice Action Network, says it reflects the same set of policy failures. "Instead of getting him the help he needs—whether that's mental health treatment, drug treatment, or other social services—he's been sentenced to serve 20 years in prison for a petty, nonviolent offense," she says. She adds that "while other states have started reforming their sentencing laws and focusing on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, Florida hasn't budged."

Spellman's sentence is indeed unfair. He is, to be clear, a career criminal with some violent offenses on his record, and his latest crime should not go unpunished. But two decades for stealing some cigarettes? That's excessive, no matter how many prior convictions he has. Spellman already paid the consequences for his past crimes; his old actions shouldn't carry over.

And what exactly are the benefits of sending Spellman to prison for so long? During the 2016–2017 fiscal year, the Florida Department of Corrections spent an average of $55.80 per inmate each day. If Spellman serves his full sentence, those figures suggest he will cost Florida taxpayers more than $407,000. And when he does get out, he'll probably have trouble becoming a contributing member of society. As Krisai noted in her paper last year, prison "ensures that these [low-level offenders] come out with felony records, difficult employment prospects, and in some cases, as better criminals."

Nor does Spellman's sometimes violent past mean he should be locked up for such a long time. As Fordham University law professor John Pfaff told Reason last year, violent criminals are not always "inherently dangerous" and "the proper response to violence is not always prison." In 20 years, Spellman will be just short of 70 years old. Is he really still going to be a threat at that point?

Is Spellman a criminal? Yes. Does he have a violent past? Also yes. But should he be locked away for 20 years over some cigarettes? Absolutely not.

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  1. We have given him fourteen 2nd chances, why not a fifteenth?

    The sentence is not merely for the present crime, it is for the recidivism and it does not appear that his criminal career is victimless.

    1. The sentence is not merely for the present crime, it is for the recidivism and it does not appear that his criminal career is victimless.

      Yeah, the real crime is 4 yrs. for robbery without a gun, 3 yrs. for robbery with, and 2.5 yrs. for battery with intent.

      Offense Date Offense Sentence Length
      05/21/1986 ROBB. NO GUN/DDLY.WPN 4Y 0M 0D
      02/25/1990 ROBB. GUN OR DEADLY WPN 3Y 0M 0D
      04/06/1990 AGG BATTERY INTENDED HARM 2Y 6M 0D
      04/05/1990 AGG ASSLT-W/WPN NO INTENT TO K 3Y 0M 0D
      02/25/1990 AGG ASSLT-W/WPN NO INTENT TO K 5Y 0M 0D
      04/05/1990 AGG ASSLT-W/WPN NO INTENT TO K 5Y 0M 0D
      04/06/1990 AGG BATTERY INTENDED HARM 5Y 6M 0D
      12/13/1996 PETIT THEFT/3RD CONVICTION 2Y 0M 0D

      1. Where is the line?

        This guy does not want to live in this law abiding society. Oblige him.

        1. Yeah, no sympathy here.

          If you want to rally for spending money to try and actually rehab people in prison, maybe that’s an option. If you want more of these people on the street, you will probably end up with more vigilante justice.

    2. Agree completely. This is the wrong candidate for a pity party. If this was his first offense you could make an argument that the sentence was excessive, but he is obviously a career criminal and it’s time to shut down the revolving door.

  2. 14 felonies and 31 misdemeanors.

    If these are all separate crimes then yeah lock him up for 20 years (if 1 crime with a ton of stacking charges then maybe not). Theives put people’s livelihoods at risk, fuck em.

  3. A repeat violent felon.
    THIS is your chosen poster boy for sentence reform?

    Maybe if you’re wanting harsher first sentences. Something that will make them think nothing, no amount of ill-gotten gains, could ever be worth spending another second in jail.

    14 felonies.

    1. If your principles don’t apply to the hard cases, then they aren’t much use as principles. But hey, even though the 13 years he has already spent in prison haven’t reformed him, I’m sure this stretch will.

      1. At this point the purpose isn’t to reform him, it’s to keep him from preying on good citizens of Florida.

        1. And that’s worth a half million dollars?

          1. Well it’s only U$407,000 according to the article. And of course it’s the government that’s running the jails so figure they’re spending twice as much as what a decently run profit driven company should do.

            But putting that all aside. What do you do with criminals whose crimes cost less than the cost of incarceration?

            Solve for the equilibrium when the criminal realizes that it costs U$55 a day to lock him up, and if he steals only $50 worth of goods, we’ll never send him to jail.

          2. With Florida’s population at 20M, that amounts to a cost of 0.1 cents per person per year. And if the rap sheet posted above is correct, add in the savings of the violent felony this guy won’t commit to get himself the 20-year sentence that you will feel is justified, and I’d call it a net win for the public.

          3. How much did all those previous crimes cost to investigate and prosecute? How much would his inevitable future crimes cost?

            Some people just need to be kept away from the public. This is as classic an example as you can get short of being a serial killer.

          4. No, it’s worth about $5 of hempen rope. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has unilaterally amended the Constitution to block that solution, so a good long imprisonment is the best solution the State of Florida is allowed to implement.

            1. Enh. Labor Restitution Prison might not be a terrible idea for people like this.

      2. I think the principle of “go easy on victimless crimes, and use the resources saved for violent felons” is pretty easy to defend here.

        1. Property crimes are not victimless. Even if you don’t care about the property loss, property crimes need to be dealt with by the state because otherwise people will take care of them privately. And they will use violence to do it. So policing property crimes is necessary. Every villiage chieftain down through history knows this.

        2. “Non-Violent” is not the same as “Victimless” and if you look at this guy’s rap sheet in the first post, most of his crimes were in fact violent.

      3. Who said anything about reform?

        1. Yeah. Imagine the fucked up shit that would go on if the government could take a 14-time felon and turn him into a respectable upstanding member of society with or without his acquiescence.

      4. I didn’t even realize a nonviolent burglar was one of the hard cases! Just imagine when we get to the homicides and rapists.

        1. Nonviolent? Are you retarded? You have to be retarded.

          1. Is there any allegation of violence in the burglary he’s just been convicted of?

            1. Doesn’t matter, he has committed violent felonies in the past, so he is and always will be a violent felon. That he did the time doesn’t change that.

              1. “Hi, I’m Cathy and I’m an asshole who thinks I can decide for everyone what a hard case is and that DOES NOT INCLUDE VIOLENT FELONS”

                lol go with that socko

          2. Cathy L is retarded.

            I killed a burglar before. I was victim of potential theft and had to endure self defense inquiries which are a pain in my ass.

            Plus, I had to buy new bullets and get the blood stains cleaned up.

        2. Are you suggesting the need for sentencing reform for murders and rapists?

            1. Don’t forget the kid fuckers Cathy, you know this is really about you.

            2. I used to think you were a misguided lefty. Now it’s obvious that you are a troll.

  4. I have been told that even minor infractions deserve the harshest enforcement of the law. Throw the book at him even if he had no prior felonies.

    1. Maybe not the first few, but after number 10 it’s really obvious this person doesn’t want to be free.

  5. We need to bring back the whipping post for crimes like this. Prison is very expensive and counterproductive.

    1. I thought the traditional punishment for theft was cutting off a hand.

      1. Welts on your back will heal. Hands don’t grow back.

        1. So? You can’t “bring back” flogging as a punishment for theft, if flogging wasn’t used as punishment for theft.

          1. Are you this fun in person?

      2. Where did you get that idea? Muslim law involved amputations for theft, sure, but traditional Anglo-American law used flogging, branding, transportation, and hanging in addition to fines and imprisonment.

  6. And what exactly are the benefits of sending Spellman to prison for so long?

    Putting aside the question of sentencing reform and how it would be structured, there is an answer to this question.

    In 20 years, Spellman will be just short of 70 years old. Is he really still going to be a threat at that point?

    And I found the answer down lower in the article.

  7. . . . Spellman’s criminal past includes convictions for 14 felonies and 31 misdemeanors. And in Florida, stealing $300 worth of property is enough to warrant a conviction for grand theft.

    Eh. If it was just stealing cigarettes, sure. But this guy is a lifetime offender. Its obvious that he won’t, probably *can’t*, stop. He needs to be institutionalized.

    Of course, that ‘diagnoses’ is contingent on what he’s been convicted of before. Drug dealing/possession or prostitution convictions don’t count and I wouldn’t even count the misdemeanors just to err on the side of leniency. Oh and Florida is a ‘lawn order’ state so that definitely has to be taken into account – $300 is not ‘grand theft’.

    1. Assuming we consolidate all offenses on the same date on the assumption they’re a single crime, ignore the misdemeanors, ignore all the misdemeanor-elevated-to-felony-for-repetition thefts as misdemeanors, and call BS on the single-date drug possession/violently resisting arrest/battery of two LEOs convictions, we still are left with

      1) Robbery (1986)
      2) Robbery with a deadly weapon (1990)
      3) Aggravated assault with a weapon (1990)
      4) Aggravated battery (1990)
      5) Burglary (2005)

      as his record coming into the theft of the cigarettes.

      1. “But BOB!!! Two murders ahead of time, sure, but now because of this 3 strikes law, he’s going to prison for 20 years for jaywalking!”

        He’s not going to jail for 20 years for stealing cigarettes alone.

  8. This is absolutely appalling. If any of your friends continue to doubt the existence of institutional racism in our justice system, show them this story.

    Unless a criminal does something truly irredeemable, we libertarians should insist on mandatory job training and rehabilitation programs rather than incarceration. Time behind bars should be reserved only for the worst of the worst, like Brett Kavanaugh.

    1. Furthermore, if Spellman really does spend 20 years locked up, he should at least have the right to vote during his sentence.


      1. So now Andrew Cuomo is a libertarian?

        1. I have met andrew cuomo in person and he is NOT a libertarian.

  9. Spellman already paid the consequences for his past crimes; his old actions shouldn’t carry over.
    Deterrence was another objective of his previous punishments. Apparently they were to lenient.

    1. Or maybe imprisonment doesn’t work for deterrence.

      1. In many cases, you’re probably right. In such cases the long sentence is for public protection.

      2. He’s deterred while he’s in prison so… it does work some.

        1. Yeah, there’s definitely no crime in prisons.

          1. Well, he’s not committing crimes on the public, so he’s still deterred.

            Do you EVER get tired of me kicking you around?

            1. The answer appears to be “no”.

      3. Do you have any ideas as to what might be a deterrent?

          1. Of the pound me in the a$$ prison kind.

      4. Or maybe imprisonment doesn’t work for deterrence.

        It sure fuckin’ deters me.

        1. That’s interesting. What acts are you refraining from due to fear of imprisonment?

  10. I KNEW IT WAS SPELLED SHACKELFORD. What do you have to say for yourself, “Shackford”? Come out of hiding and address this controversy.

  11. Two decades for stealing some cigarettes

    Well, in NYC $600 probably meant he swiped a pack or two, but in Florida, indeed, it was certainly a bigger heist.

    Setyon should not phrase it that way when it’s the burglary charge that probably sealed its fate. A burglar is not technically inherently a violent criminal (although many are, and this guy certainly was in past) but it is considered one of the bigger threats to the public among those that are not.

    Before taking up his cause Setyon should also consider whether the old man really wants it. Looking at the timing of that rap sheet it looks like this guy since his first offence more than 30 years ago basically commits another as soon as he gets out. Some people are just more comfortable in than out. Out is tough, and especially as you get older and older, downright confusing. This guy seems like the stereotypical old man who does a little something because deep down he wants back in.

    If people want to take up a cause from this maybe it should be how our system fails at reintegrating and rehabilitating people to help them become productive citizens from the start. Maybe this guy is an example of someone who’d always have been a repeat offender, but it’s still a cause that would benefit everyone.

  12. He didn’t get 20 years for stealing cigs. He got 20 years for being someone who commits a shit ton of felonies.

    1. You mean like every single US resident?

      1. Nah, his were violent.

      2. He has been convicted for a shitload of felonies.

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  15. Per the linked Inmate Release Information, Mr. Spellman has already been sentenced to a cumulative 69 years for just his prior crimes. Sort of wonder what he was doing out and about to steal cigs in the first place.

  16. Low on sympathy; “14 felonies and 31 misdemeanors” from his mugshot looks like one or two convictions per year, which is about as classic a definition of irredeemable habitual criminal as you can get. It might be cheaper to lock him up than keep catching and prosecuting him.

    There might be cheaper ways to handle this, such as ankle bracelet, but what for? Just to make it easier to track him down and show he did his next few dozen crimes?

    How many crimes did he commit and not get caught? How much were the convictions just watered-down pea deals?

    Nope, not gonna sweat this one.

  17. 45 priors !!!!
    Come on. I’m all for sentencing reform, esp non-violent offenders. But this guy belongs in fucking jail.

    1. The bleeding hearts can never articulate where the line is. 30 felonies? 20 felonies?

      The criminal justice system is broken. Victimless crimes should be repealed….

      Guys like this dont want to live in a law abiding society. Oblige him.

  18. If the criminal justice system isn’t to keep 14-time convicted criminals separated from the rest of us, then what is it for?

    I’m for a lot more leniency than most people, but this guy never learns. Keep him on the other side of the bars where he can’t do any more damage to the people on this side. If you don’t want to do that, it’s because you don’t want us to be protected from crimes. Period.

    1. Yes, leniency the first or even second time, but not after 30 years of never learning.

      Reminds me of the parable of the fundamentalist who refused to evacuate before the hurricane. Sheriff came around, offered a ride to the shelters, he refused; “The Lord will provide!”. Flood forced him to the second floor, National Guardies came around in a boat, he refused; “The Lord will provide!”. Flood waters rose, forced him to the roof, Coasties came around in a helicopter, he refused; “The Lord will provide!”.

      He drowned.

      At the Pearly Gates, he complained that he had not been saved. St Peter got exasperated. We sent around a car, a boat, and a helicopter; wasn’t that enough? And sent him to Hell.

      This guy had a whole lot more leniency than he deserved.

  19. Probably should have hung him 5 or 6 felonies ago. If the cigarette theft was a 1st ,2nd or 3rd non-violent theft I’d say flogging was in order.Career criminals should be branded or otherwise permanently marked. I don’t think people belong in prison.

    1. Career criminals should be branded or otherwise permanently marked.

      Heh. Many of them are. Most of those did it to themselves voluntarily.

      I get where you’re going with this, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t become a perverse badge of pride in this culture.

      Still, the inch high red letters across the forehead trick just might work. “POOR IMPULSE CONTROL”

  20. >>>Is he really still going to be a threat at that point?

    empirical data says he’s a threat every day

  21. His freedom was already a gift given his horrible record. I’m quite happy with this sentence. Hopefully he does the full sentence.

  22. He ran afoul of Florida’s harsh “bazillion strikes” law.

    1. Nice

  23. “20 Years in Prison for Florida Man Who Drank Water”

    He has prior felony convictions, and was just convicted of another, but 20 years for drinking water still seems harsh.

    “Spellman’s criminal past includes convictions for 14 felonies and 31 misdemeanors”

    That’s only the convictions.

    Go to the link. The guy is a career criminal who has been in prison as much as out for the last 30 years and who is never ever going to stop.

  24. “Spellman already paid the consequences for his past crimes; his old actions shouldn’t carry over.”

    This canard has gots to go.

    Doing your time in prison doesn’t pay for the consequences of your crimes, it only accepts punishment. Crimes are not undone by your prison sentence.

    Has he done any restitution to all those he has victimized over the years?
    Aggravated assaults and robbery.

    How are they undone? How are they paid for?
    Did you call his victims to see if they thought they had been paid for what he did to them?

    Letting you out of prison does *not* mean you have paid for your crimes, and it is just insanity for us not to “carry over” knowledge of his crimes when we evaluate the threat he poses when he is convicted of yet more.

    1. So, the punishment for all crimes should be death?

      1. There’s no moral problem with punishing robbery or burglary with death. The valid objections are pragmatic ones:

        1. The risk of killing wrongly-convicted people
        2. Unintended consequences, e.g. encouraging robbers to kill the witnesses.
        3. Giving the state the power to kill its own people is a bad idea.

        We can pretty much rule out #1 as a concern here. Nobody gets wrongly convicted THAT many times. Reasons 2 and 3 are still in play, though. In my opinion, locking him up forever, while expensive, is the way to go. He is clearly incapable of respecting basic human rights.

        1. There’s no moral problem with punishing robbery or burglary with death.

          Uh…for you, maybe. Those of us who are more civilized consider punishments that are wildly out of proportion to the offense to be injustices.

          Now that I think about it?the idea that the punishment should be proportional to the crime pre-dates civilization. I should say, “those of us who are not savages”.

  25. Surely with his record he was on probation or parole when he stole the cigs.

  26. I’m OK with this. He has had at least 45 chances to figure out not to do shit like this.

  27. Yep, and Feech LaManna was sent to prison for decades just for having some stolen TVs in his garage.

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