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.


  1. says

    Many years ago I opened my first photography studio in the San Diego community of Ocean Beach. Down the block was a Safeway store. One early Saturday I heard a gunshot and discovered (after I gathered my wits…) that the Safeway store manager had chased a shoplifter down and shot him to death just alongside my studio. Many of my current views about justice and injustice were born on that day.

  2. Cathy W says

    If I ran the zoo, there would be a small toiletries allowance added to food stamps -- enough to cover average usage of ordinary soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and TP for the number of people on the benefit. With the debit cards now in use I don’t think that would be difficult.

    Perhaps that’s why I’ll never run the zoo.

  3. schmeer says

    (whine) But if we give them a toothbrush and toothpaste the next thing you know they’ll want their own bootstraps. Then when they lift themselves with those bootstraps I won’t feel superior to them for being born into my privilege. (end sarcasm)

  4. Uri says

    the flip side is harsh crimes with no punishment. as far as i know, these murderers were not charged with a crime.

  5. lochaber says

    Aside from the immediate penalty itself (jailtime, fine, etc.), is that the individual now has a criminal record, which will prevent them from obtaining many (legal) jobs, and serve as an excuse to deny housing.

    So will having either a gap in housing, or a gap in employment, so in many ways, once someone spends some time in jail, on the streets, or unemployed, it is almost impossible for them to re-enter society without an extensive support network (large supportive family, very helpful friends, etc.)

  6. Nepenthe says

    ;begin pedant

    The Valjean story is even more affecting. He steals the silver set from the bishop. When he’s brought back by the police, the bishop tells them that the silver was a gift and he “reminds” Valjean that he forgot to take the candlesticks.

    ;end pedant

  7. twosheds1 says

    Or worse, they might buy a fancy toothbrush, instead of one of the cheap ones. But really, isn’t there somewhere where they could buy used toothbrushes? Come on, do they really need a new one? Next thing you know they’ll be expecting luxuries like combs and razors!


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