After a misunderstanding with a sale advertisement, a man underpaid for a 20-ounce soda by 43 cents. He was charged with a felony and faced up to 7 years in prison.
When 38-year-old Joseph Sobolewski stopped at a convenience store in east-central Pennsylvania, he spotted a promotional ad offering two bottles of Mountain Dew for $3, according to Penn Live. Only wanting one, Sobolewski grabbed a 20-ounce bottle, left $2 on the counter, and walked out believing he had more than covered the cost of a $1.50 soda.
Although every citizen relies on the law for a functional society, almost all agree that there are serious problems with the justice system. Not only are some criminals evading justice altogether, but far worse is it when others are disproportionately punished with exceptionally harsh sentences compared to their alleged crimes.
Unfortunately, Sobolewski, who is homeless, apparently didn’t consider that the sale only applied to customers purchasing two bottles. In fact, a single 20-ounce soda was still $2.29, meaning that he had unintentionally shorted the clerk 29 cents plus tax, leaving him owing 43 cents in total. As such, the store called the police.
State police eventually tracked down Sobolewski and charged him with a felony. He was held on a $50,000 cash-only bond and faced up to 7 years in prison for theft under 50 cents. The reason for such a harsh penalty is the state’s “three strikes law” for retail theft. However, even Sobolewski’s previous convictions aren’t worthy of such high stakes.
Sobolewski was convicted over a decade ago after driving off without paying for a tank of gasoline. In 2011, he was again arrested for stealing a pair of $39.99 shoes from K-Mart. He ended up paying more than $866 in fines and was sentenced to three months in jail for a probation violation. He was later arrested for putting craft supplies from Hobby Lobby in his backpack.
“For me, I would get the deterrent factor if someone’s thefts were getting worse or higher in value,” said Brandon Flood, director of the state’s Board of Parole. “But the lack of discretion is what bothers me. It’s problematic because it doesn’t factor in the amount.”
The convenience store manager who called the police claims that she followed Sobolewski outside and told him he didn’t pay enough. She alleges he responded that he did, and then he drove away. When asked why the store would want to pursue criminal charges for such a minor offense, the manager declined to comment.
Pennsylvania State police spokeswoman Megan Ammerman said troopers “cannot decide to not charge someone for a criminal case, only victims of certain crimes can decline charges. If we are called to an incident involving a crime we follow and enforce the PA Crimes Code.”
The “three strikes law” is blanket legislation that doesn’t take into account the context of the alleged crime. In fact, even if the crimes become lesser in nature, the penalty still increases. ACLU Philadelphia criminal justice policy counsel Nyssa Taylor says that the state should be reserving prison cells for dangerous offenders.
“The state prisons are bulging,” she said. “We don’t need to be jailing people over this. It’s punishment of poverty and substance use disorder.”
Since Sobolewski is homeless, paying a bond isn’t an option. Luckily, a public defender managed to convince a different judge to intervene, freeing him after seven days behind bars.
The case proves the flaws in the justice system. Perhaps the case is a rare exception, however, the fact that this can happen is enough evidence that the “three strikes law” must be amended.
Justice isn’t a one-size-fits-all system or, at least, it shouldn’t be. The punishment should fit the crime and, in this case, years behind bars just is a disproportionate penalty for such an insignificant mistake.