Criminal Justice

Pennsylvania Homeless Man Spared Felony Charge for 43-Cent Misunderstanding

However, the cruel policy that threatened him with years in jail remains in place.


In September, Pennsylvania prosecutors charged a homeless man with theft over a 43-cent misunderstanding, which due to the state's three-strikes law could have subjected him to years in prison. Last month, the theft charge was dropped, thereby preventing the worst possible outcome, although that does not mean everything necessarily worked out as it should have.

As Reason reported at the time, Joseph Sobolewski grabbed a Mountain Dew at a convenience store that was advertising them as two for $3. He placed $2 on the counter and walked out, unaware that the individual price was $2.29, or $2.43 with tax. The clerk called the police over the infraction. The police then tracked Sobolewski down and arrested him for theft, which because of Pennsylvania's three-strikes law was automatically escalated to felony theft, due to his two previous theft convictions from a decade earlier. Held on $50,000 bond, Sobolewski faced up to seven years in prison.

According to The Patriot-News, however, prosecutors dropped the theft charge and reduced another charge for driving with a suspended license from a misdemeanor to the equivalent of a traffic ticket. As a result, Sobolewski would be spared from the possibility of a yearslong prison sentence over an obvious misunderstanding, which he described as "great news."

While this is indeed great news, it does not mean that the system worked as it should have.

First, upon being arrested, Sobolewski spent a week in jail under a bond amount completely incommensurate with either the alleged offense or his purported danger to society. It was only after a public defender stepped in and convinced a different judge to change it to "unsecured," which meant that he could leave without having to post any money upfront, that he was able to go free.

According to a GoFundMe arranged by another Pennsylvanian on his behalf, Sobolewski and his wife are both homeless, and he works odd jobs to try and support them. Even if he did have gainful employment, however, it is entirely possible that a week in jail would have led to his termination.

In addition, Sobolewski still owes court fees, and his bail amount is still set at $50,000—if at any point the district attorney's office decides that Sobolewski has violated the terms of his bail, it can simply call him back to prison. While this is unlikely based on the recent media attention, it still hangs over Sobolewski's head.

In fact, as The Patriot-News noted, prosecutors dropped the charges earlier in October after the story had gone "viral, with dozens of other publications across the country and into Canada writing about it." People are arrested every day in the more than half of U.S. states that currently have three-strikes laws on the books, and it should not take national media attention to spare them from cruelly disproportionate sentences.

Ultimately, that is exactly what three-strikes laws are: Cruel and disproportionate sentences enshrined into statute. The idea that the punishment should fit the crime is completely upended by mandatory sentencing requirements that treat lesser offenses more harshly based not upon the circumstances of the crime being charged, but upon previous offenses for which the offender has already been punished. Even in cases where a judge would prefer not to impose a harsh sentence, such laws often give them no choice. It is welcome news that Sobolewski will not face a felony charge in this case, but unfortunately, the policy that initially threatened him with one remains in place.