Petty crimes and harsh punishments

I came across this tragic story in which the manager of a CVS store gave chase to someone who shoplifted a tube of toothpaste and caught him in an alley. The manager and other bystanders ended up strangling the shoplifter in the process of subduing him.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about poor people getting punished for crimes that were more tragic than harmful, such as someone arrested for shoplifting a toothbrush from a pharmacy and another for stealing a single 12-oz can of beer.

Yes, these people were breaking the law and allowing them to do so freely without any consequence would not be a good thing as a general rule. But such petty crimes and the way we so disproportionately respond to them tell us something about the nature of our society that is not complimentary. Someone stealing so small and so basic an item of personal hygiene as a toothbrush or a tube of toothpaste seems like someone who is really hard up and in genuine need and not a hardened criminal who needs to be put in jail or assaulted to the point of death.

George Orwell in his wonderful semi-autographical short novel Down and Out in Paris and London (which is available for free online) that describes how hard it is to keep oneself clean when one is poor and homeless. It ends:

Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by 
being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken 
scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor 
be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation 
Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a 
smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. Jean Valjean is sentenced to five years imprisonment for stealing bread for his family and ends up serving much longer because he tries to escape. Compare that with his subsequent gentle treatment by a bishop who sees that he is not really a bad person and refuses to hand him over to the authorities even though Valjean steals his candlesticks after the bishop had given him shelter in his home.

We need to have a system that provides people with such basic necessities of life as food and shelter and hygiene. No one should be placed in a position where he or she has to steal a toothbrush.