In October 2019, we received multiple inquiries from readers about a years-old report which claimed that among thousands of prisoners serving life sentences for non-violent crimes in the U.S. was one man who had stolen a jacket worth $159.
The left-leaning news program and website “Democracy Now” first broadcast the episode (and accompanying article) in 2013, with the headline “Jailed for Life for Stealing a $159 Jacket? 3,200 Serving Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes.”
The article re-emerged on social media in October 2019, when former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger received a 10-year prison sentence for shooting dead Botham Jean in his own apartment, after she claimed she had mistaken his apartment for her own, and him for an intruder.
Guyger’s relatively lenient sentence for a murder conviction engendered protests and a measure of outrage, and it prompted debate about the racial dynamics at play in both the incident itself and racial discrepancies in sentencing. (Guyger is white, Jean was black.)
In the aftermath of Guyger’s sentencing, multiple social media users contrasted her relatively light sentence for murder with the life imprisonment meted out to thousands of others — many of them people of color — for nonviolent crimes, as reported in the “Democracy Now” article:
A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related convictions. Sixty-five percent are African-American, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino — evidence of what the ACLU calls ‘extreme racial disparities.’ The crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, possessing a crack pipe, facilitating a $10 sale of marijuana, and attempting to cash a stolen check.
In the episode itself, host Amy Goodman interviewed Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the author of the study. At one moment, Goodman remarked “a man walks out of a store with a coat slung over his shoulder, $159, gets life in prison without parole.” The full segment and interview can be viewed below:
It is true that in 1996, a black man in Louisiana named Timothy Jackson was sentenced to life in prison without parole after he was caught shoplifting a jacket worth $160. However, what the Democracy Now article’s pithy headline did not mention (but the video episode and ACLU study did) was that Jackson was sentenced as a “fourth-strike” offender and would not have received the punishment he did were it not for his three previous robbery and burglary convictions.
The ACLU study which formed the basis of Democracy Now’s televised segment and online article was published in November 2013 and titled “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offences.” (It can be read in full here.) Pages 116 and 117 of the report dealt with the case of Timothy Jackson, stating that:
Timothy Jackson is serving [life without parole] for shoplifting a jacket from a Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans when he was 36 years old. The jacket cost $159.
Jackson, who worked as a restaurant cook and had only a sixth-grade education, was addicted to drugs and says he was on drugs when he walked out of the store without paying for the jacket in January 1996. A store security agent followed Jackson, who put the jacket down on a newspaper stand and tried to walk away when he realized he was being followed.
At the time, Jackson’s crime carried a two-year sentence; it now carries a six-month sentence. Instead, the court sentenced Jackson to mandatory life without parole, using a two-decades-old juvenile conviction for simple robbery (from 1979, when he was 17) and two simple car-burglary convictions (from 1986 and 1991) to sentence him as a fourth-strike offender.
As the ACLU report detailed, Jackson appealed his conviction and sentence before the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit, which upheld his conviction but overturned his sentence. In her November 1997 opinion, Judge Patricia Rivet Murray wrote in stark terms about the court’s reasoning:
We find this case to be a prime example of an unjust result. As stated earlier, Mr. Jackson has two prior simple burglary convictions and a conviction for simple robbery. The record also indicates that at the time he was sentenced for the 1979 simple robbery, Mr. Jackson was multiple billed as a second offender for an earlier forgery conviction. The only crime of violence … is the simple robbery for which Mr. Jackson was convicted eighteen years ago.
Since that time, he has had two simple burglary convictions and the present offense. This is not to say that Mr. Jackson should not be imprisoned. However, life in prison without the possibility of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence is excessive …
Timothy Jackson is a petty thief, but he has not shown himself to be a violent criminal. Trying him as a fourth offender so that he can be sent to prison for life without parole for shoplifting a jacket may be within the broad discretion of the district attorney; nonetheless, it is an inappropriate exercise of that discretion in this case.
However, prosecutors took the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which sided against Jackson and ordered the Appeals Court to reverse its earlier decision and uphold Jackson’s life sentence. Rather reluctantly, the Appeals Court did just that in August 1998, and Jackson is still serving out a life sentence more than 20 years later.
The dispute that went before the Appeals Court and Supreme Court revolved around the degree of discretion available to trial court judges to deviate from minimum sentencing guidelines. In the late 1990s, Louisiana’s habitual offender law stated that “If the fourth or subsequent felony or any of the prior felonies is a felony defined as a crime of violence…the person shall be imprisoned for the remainder of his natural life, without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.”
(That law was subsequently changed and now requires that the fourth felony and two of the previous three felonies must be crimes of violence or sex offenses in order to trigger the mandatory life sentence.)
Jackson’s conviction for theft was his fourth felony after convictions for simple robbery in 1979 and simple burglary in 1986 and 1991. His 1979 conviction for “simple robbery” was, under another provision of Louisiana law, defined as a “crime of violence.” Therefore, under state law he was eligible to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Initially, the trial court sentenced him to 20 years, but the status of the 1979 offense as a “crime of violence” came to the attention of the judge, who then imposed the life sentence.
In its original decision in November 1997, the Appeals Court ruled that the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the crime of stealing a jacket from a department store was unreasonably and unconstitutionally excessive, even if it was within the range set out in Louisiana’s habitual offender law.
The Supreme Court disagreed and pointed to its own precedential decisions, finding that the authority of trial judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences could only be used in truly exceptional circumstances, and that judges must be careful not to usurp the primary authority given to legislators to define crimes and set out the punishments for them.
In its second opinion, the Appeals Court responded to the Supreme Court’s line of argument, writing:
We seriously doubt that the Legislature contemplated life imprisonment, and the burden on the system such a sentence imposes, for someone, even a recidivist, who is guilty of shoplifting. Rather, the Legislature’s purpose was to take repeat offenders who have committed more and more serious crimes off the streets.
Mr. Jackson is atypical of the criminal for whom [the Habitual Offender law] was enacted. Although this is Mr. Jackson’s fourth felony conviction in eighteen years, the seriousness of his offenses has gradually diminished, culminating with this shoplifting conviction. But for the eighteen year old conviction for simple robbery, which is defined as a crime of violence, the sentence of twenty years, which the trial court was prepared to impose until advised of that conviction, would have been appropriate.
Despite these firm and clearly-stated objections, the Appeals Court accepted that “we are bound by the rulings of the Supreme Court,” and reinstated Jackson’s original sentence of life imprisonment without parole.
In 1996, Timothy Jackson was indeed sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the crime of stealing a jacket worth $160. (Although only a trivial point, the Appeals Court’s original opinion clarified that the price tag on the jacket was $159.99 — closer to $160 than $159.)
That sentence was one the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court found to be unreasonably and unconstitutionally excessive, and that many observers since have concluded was outrageously disproportionate and unjust.
However, the severity of Jackson’s punishment was not based only on that single act of theft, or on that conviction alone. Rather, he was sentenced under Louisiana law as a “habitual offender,” having committed three previous felonies. Democracy Now’s headline — “Jailed for Life for Stealing a $159 Jacket? 3,200 Serving Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes — did not provide that important piece of context.
Although perhaps understandable given the space constraints inherent in headline writing, that omission was misleading to readers, especially those who did not carefully read the article itself or view the television segment which it accompanied. As such, we issue a rating of “Mostly True.”