A 43-year-old Texan man named Willie Smith Ward just became the latest victim of a misguided justice system, having been sentenced to 50 years in prison for trying to steal a rack of pork ribs from an H-E-B grocery story in Waco, Texas.
A whopping $35 heist.
The jury deliberated for just two minutes over the case, and then about an hour deciding the punishment. Ward is a repeat offender, with five felony counts (burglary, attempted robbery, aggravated assault, leaving the scene of an accident, and possession of cocaine), as well as four misdemeanor convictions.
Assistant District Attorney J.R. Vicha, who prosecuted Ward alongside Chris Bullajian, was pleased with the outcome. "This verdict shows that the citizens of this county will not tolerate a continued disrespect and disregard for other people and their property," he said.
“People who choose to do so will be dealt with seriously and appropriately.”
In this case that translates to an effective life sentence, with parole rates in the state hovering at just around 30%.
Texas has long been a proponent of the "Three Strikes" program, whereby repeat or "habitual" offenders are incarcerated for life to prevent recidivism. In 1974, the state became the first to enact such a policy.
Within two decades, 24 states and the federal government would have some variation of the law on the books.
Originally praised by politicians, many on the left championed such measures to avoid being seen as "light on crime." It was a political gamble at the center of the Democratic battle to recapture middle America, led by Bill Clinton in the 1990s — who himself advocated for a federal Three Strikes program in his 1994 State of the Union Address.
"Homeless guys on drugs, that was your typical third-striker," says Stanford Law School’s Michael Romano, co-founder of the Three Strikes Project. Romano is referring to California's embattled 1994 ballot initiative, Proposition 184. The law is responsible for 10,000 imprisoned Californians, 3,000 of which are estimated to be eligible for release under a subsequent ballot initiative passed just last year to revise the law.
Enacted with the intent of locking up violent offenders — rapists, kidnappers, and murderers — most states have instead watched bloated prisons take on more and more petty criminals on life sentences, who are disproportionately poor, homeless, and mentally ill. The prison population in America has since exploded from just a few million in the early 90s, to around 2.3 million today — making us the proud global leader in both total prisoners and prisoners per capita.
"You could send hundreds of deserving people to college for the amount of money we were spending," Romano adds.
In a blistering article for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi calls these programs "the world’s most expensive and pointlessly repressive homeless-care program," costing California alone an average of $50,000 per year per prisoner. 40% of them are mentally retarded or mentally ill. 45% are black (compared to a 7% African American population in the state).
According to a 2011 report by the National Institute of Corrections, such policies have "no demonstrable effect on violent crime levels or trends."
Willie Smith Ward is now the latest victim of these poverty-cleansing measures — striking a similar if-we-can't-fix-it-let's-lock-it-up-forever tone as so many recent headlines have. Consider him swept under the rug, lost to a uniquely-American penal system built upon the principles of retaliation and revenge — not rehabilitation — a thinly-veiled assault on the poor, the marginalized, the ill, the inconvenient, and the disadvantaged.
Should he be reprimanded for stealing some ribs — yes. Should it be for the rest of his life?