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.