Our legal system may not have the time or the inclination to go after top bank executives who caused the financial collapse that caused so much misery for so many, or the wealthy tax cheats who hide their money in secret off-shore accounts, or companies and businesses that defraud ordinary people. But when it comes to really serious economic crimes, they will crack down and crack down hard.
This past July, a homeless Portland woman was charged with third-degree theft when she plugged her cellphone charger into an outlet on a sidewalk planter box in Old Town.
“Jackie,” (who did not want her real name used), says she was shocked when four uniformed officers all agreed her actions warranted not only their response, but also charges and a court summons.
Jackie has never been convicted of a crime. If this charge led to a conviction, it would mean the difference between checking “no” or “yes” to questions about criminal history on a job or housing application.
Her attorney, Metropolitan Public Defender Stacy Du Clos, says Jackie’s main concern at the time was how this pending case might hurt her chances of getting a roof over her head – she’s homeless and on several waiting lists for affordable housing units.
Jackie says she prefers to sleep in close proximity to the police station because she feels safer there. But if she wants to shower or eat, Old Town is where are all the resources are. For Jackie, having a charged cell phone is a matter of personal safety. “Men approach me, stuff happens,” she says.
On the day of her arrest, she had to walk through Old Town to get to Transition Projects to take a shower, and her phone was dead.
She says she saw a man charging his phone on the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Third Avenue, and decided to join him. She had no idea that what she was about to do – plug in her phone – could bring a theft charge.
Jackie has muscular dystrophy and receives disability checks, but she is still sleeping outdoors while she waits for housing she can afford with that income.
Now she faces the usual problems of poor people. She will be found guilty of a trivial offense, be unable to pay any fines or court costs, and then the extra fines will start being tacked on that she can never hope to get out from under and she will end up in jail. All the while the system uses up a vast amount of public resources prosecuting a poor, sick, homeless woman for the ‘crime’ of using up less than one cent’s worth of electricity without paying for it.
I am not a person prone to easy rage but when I read stories like this I feel an inchoate anger towards everyone involved, from the person who reported the ‘crime’ to the police who arrested her to the legal system that will make her already difficult life more miserable and to a society in general that has nothing to offer a sick woman who is down on her luck except to kick her when she is down.