Locking Up the Pizza Bandit

How much does pizza cost in your town? For Jerry Williams, a single slice of pizza cost him 25 years to life in a California prison. Williams has earned the nickname "the Pizza Bandit" because he stole a slice of pepperoni pizza from some children playing at the beach. Normally, that would be a misdemeanor crime. But Williams lives in California, a state that in 1994 passed a sweeping law that imposes "three strikes and you're out." Williams already had two felony convictions for robbery and attempted robbery. That meant prosecutors were allowed to bump Williams's petty theft charge up to a felony--making his pizza heist the "third strike." As a result, Williams was sentenced to 25 years to life. If that sentence sounds extreme, it is. But under California law, all "three strikes" offenders must receive the same sentence whether the crime is murder or stealing a slice of pizza. Of course, any theft is wrong, and the Pizza Bandit ought to be punished. But giving him 25 years to life is ludicrous. Who are they going to lock up next, the Frito Bandito? Justice requires us to look at alternatives to making minor offenders like Jerry Williams permanent house guests of the state of California. For example, they could be sentenced to perform community service projects. But under mandatory sentencing, judges don't have these kinds of options. They're required to impose a single, one-size-fits-all sentencing structure with no regard for the seriousness of the crime or for an offender's threat to the community. Thankfully, the California Supreme Court has just put an end to this kind of mandatory madness. A few weeks ago the justices unanimously ruled that trial judges have the right to disregard a defendant's prior convictions if they think a mandatory prison sentence would be too extreme. The justices may not realize it, but their actions follow the biblical pattern of justice. In the nations surrounding ancient Israel, punishment was at times wildly disproportionate to the crime. A man could receive the death penalty for the most trivial offenses. But in the Book of Exodus we read about the concept of proportionality. The rule of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was not a license for revenge, as we often think of it today. Instead, it was a restriction to protect against excessive punishment, a requirement that the punishment match the crime and go no further. Its sense was: no more than an eye for an eye. Reforming America's criminal justice system along biblical lines is the mission of Justice Fellowship, a subsidiary of Prison Fellowship. Call us at BreakPoint, and we'll send you Justice Fellowship's quarterly newsletter so you can learn to think about criminal justice issues from a biblical perspective.   This is an election year when politicians typically promise schemes like mandatory minimums to pose as tough on crime. You and I must learn how to respond to their simplistic solutions by educating ourselves in a biblical view of justice.   A view that gives criminals like the Pizza Bandit sentences that are tough . . . but also fair.  


Chuck Colson


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