Criminal Justice

Pennsylvania Could Put a Homeless Man in Prison Over 43 Cents

Overzealous three-strikes laws claim another victim.


A homeless man in Pennsylvania faces years in prison for not reading the fine print.

Joseph Sobolewski picked up a single Mountain Dew from a convenience store, listed as two for $3, according to Penn Live. He left $2 on the counter on his way out the door, unaware that the price only applied if he bought two. Rather than write off the difference—43 cents, including tax—to a misunderstanding, the clerk called the police, who tracked down Sobolewski and charged him for the theft.

Unfortunately, Sobolewski has two prior theft convictions, and under Pennsylvania's "three strikes" law, the act of paying for most of, but not an entire, beverage requires he be charged with a felony, and face a potential jail sentence of up to seven years. Additionally, despite there being no force or threat of violence involved with the offense, Sobolewski was held with bail set at $50,000—which, to a homeless person with negligible income, may as well be $5 million.

Under the law in question, even though a first offense is treated akin to a speeding ticket, any third retail theft is treated as a third-degree felony, akin to stealing merchandise worth more than $1,000. Sobolewski's two previous convictions involved stealing a tank of gasoline, and a pair of shoes from Kmart, with each incident occurring a decade ago.

Sobolewski's case presents a clear example of the fundamental backwardness of how the American criminal justice system operates: For the cumulative theft of goods worth less than $100 over more than 10 years, he faces up to seven years in prison.

Three-strikes laws exist in multiple states and jurisdictions, with stories just as brutally unfair as this one. In Florida, septuagenarian Andrew Sweet was sentenced to three years in prison for "stealing three bags of pistachio nuts and a box of Folgers coffee—worth a total of $44.85—from a Publix. Because of two prior petty theft convictions from 1980 and 1992, the third offense became an automatic felony." Just like Sobolewski, Sweet was listed as homeless. Elsewhere, a grandfather serves a life sentence for selling marijuana.

Three-strikes laws exact a terrible toll, consigning minor offenders to long stretches in prison and distorting the fundamental constitutional principle that people should face neither "excessive fines, nor cruel and unusual punishments."