There’s no arguing that some crimes are more serious than others. Obviously, in a just situation, someone accused of rape, for instance, will be punished more severely than someone charged with a drug offense. But as this nation’s War on Drugs illustrates, that isn’t always the case. Even when it comes to non-drug offenses, there are instances where a punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime. A recent example comes to us from Waco.
According to the Waco Tribune, 43-year old Willie Smith Ward isn’t new to the criminal justice system, and it’s his history of arrests and convictions that have landed him an unusually long sentence for a theft crime.
He was convicted of robbery for stealing a rack of ribs from a local grocery store. In order for a theft to amount to “robbery” there has to be an act of violence, the threat of violence, or a weapon involved. Ward told an employee of the store that he had a knife. He didn’t, but the threat was enough for prosecutors to successfully seek the robbery conviction.
Ward had five felony and four misdemeanor convictions on his record. This criminal history allowed prosecutors to have him sentences as a habitual criminal. These laws beef up sentences for people who are recurring customers of the criminal courts.
This verdict shows that the citizens of this county will not tolerate a continued disrespect and disregard for other people and their property,” said Assistant District Attorney J.R. Vicha. “People who choose to do so will be dealt with seriously and appropriately.”
The ribs Ward shoved under his shirt that day were worth $35. He was convicted and a jury determined a 50-year prison sentence was appropriate. At his age, it’s likely that this is a life sentence for Ward.
Is a life sentence appropriate for stealing a rack of ribs? Proponents of these habitual offender laws believe it is when the offender has a lengthy criminal history. Still, even if Ward continued to commit crimes after a more reasonable sentence, is he really a danger to society or merely a thorn in the side?
If we incarcerated everyone who was an annoying weight on the system, our prisons would be even more crowded than they are today. Locking Ward up for 50 years for trying to dine in style seems way out of line with the purposes of prison sentences. Rather than being punitive or rehabilitative, we are just looking to remove him from the equation. Entirely. Forever.