Life in Prison for Stealing Candy? (DOUBLE Participation)

The number of prisoners serving life for nonviolent crimes is truly staggering.
November 15, 2013  |

This past August, the Lafayette-based IND Monthly published a story about a 54-year-old man named Bill Winters, incarcerated at a medium-security prison in Epps, Louisiana. Winters, who is black, was arrested in June 2009, after he drunkenly entered an unlocked oncologist’s office on a Sunday morning, setting off a security alarm. When police arrived, he had rummaged through a desk drawer, and was in possession of a box of Gobstoppers candy. Winters was convicted of simple burglary a week before Thanksgiving, and given a seven-year prison sentence—hardly a slap on the wrist. But a few days later, the prosecutor in his case, Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney, sought additional punishment for Winters, under the state’s habitual offender law. Based on his record of nonviolent offenses, which went back to 1991 and ranged from cocaine possession to burglary, the trial court resentenced Winters to twelve years without any chance of parole. But Haney was still not satisfied. He appealed the ruling, arguing that the court had imposed an “illegally lenient sentence” and that the rightful punishment was life without the possibility of parole.

At a subsequent hearing, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft estimated that Winters had been arrested more than twenty times, calling him a “career criminal who victimized a lot of citizens in our city.” But it seemed clear that he was more of a thorn in the side of law enforcement than a looming threat to society. His brothers, Dennis and James, testified that Winters had been homeless at the time of his offense and that he had a history of addiction; James had overcome his own drug problems and said that he would be willing to “take [Winters] in and work with him.” A former Lafayette police officer who had once worked at a correctional facility where Winters was held, said that although he did not know him well, Winters “didn’t cause problems” and had potential for rehabilitation. But this past summer, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision: “The state asserts that because of the defendant’s particular multiple offender status, the law mandates a minimum sentence of life in prison without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. We agree.”

Dennis Winters was incredulous when he heard the news about his brother. “What? This makes no sense,” he told IND Monthly. “I don’t understand what these people are trying to do. He’s not a violent person. He’s fragile. He wouldn’t hurt anybody, except maybe for himself. I just don’t get how they’re going to give him life for some Gobstopper candy.”

Today, Winters joins hundreds of Louisiana prisoners sent to die in prison after committing similarly nonviolent offenses, from drug possession to property crimes. The national numbers are tallied in a major new study released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, titled “A Living Death: Life without Parole For Nonviolent Offenses,” which documents scores of cases with echoes of Winters’s story. Across the country, defendants have been given life without parole for such crimes as having a crack pipe, “siphoning gasoline from a truck” and, inanother Louisiana case, shoplifting a $159 jacket.

Tales of outsized sentencing for minor crimes may not surprise anyone familiar with the well-documented excesses of three-strikes sentencing in California, for example. But the ACLU’s report is the first to attempt to grasp the national numbers, specifically concerning nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. The report found 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole in 2012 for nonviolent crimes, of which 79 percent were for drug crimes. This is not the complete picture—Bill Winters himself is not among the prisoners covered—and crucially, only includes formal life-without-parole cases. It does not include life sentences where parole is a possibility—if largely only in theory, given the increasing reluctance of parole boards to free prisoners. It also does not include, say, 100-year sentences, or the kinds of stacked, decades-long sentences that are, in effect, permanent life sentences. “The number of people serving death-in-prison sentences after being convicted of nonviolent crimes is not known,” the report concludes, “but it is most certainly higher than the number of prisoners serving formal life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes.”

Indeed, a report released earlier this year by the Sentencing Project found that one in nine prisoners in the US are serving a life sentence and that “those with parole-eligible life sentences are increasingly less likely to be released.” Including life with parole, the report estimated that “approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.”

Determining what qualifies as “nonviolent” is similarly complicated. As the ACLU points out, “Although the term ‘violent crime’ brings to mind very serious offenses such as rape and murder, some jurisdictions define violent crime to include burglary, breaking and entering, manufacture or sale of controlled substances, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, or extortion.” In other words, the number of prisoners serving life without parole who are far from the “worst of the worst” is higher still.

* * *

Regardless of the exact numbers, and perhaps not surprisingly for the state known as theprison capital of the world, it is clear that Louisiana is home to a disproportionate number of these sentences. It also provides a dramatic illustration of the explosion of permanent life sentences over the past four decades: “In Louisiana, just 143 people were serving LWOP sentences in 1970,” the ACLU notes. “That number had increased to 4,637 by 2012.” The report found that Louisiana had the highest number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole out of all the states: 429. Florida was a distant second, with 270. (Thanks to the drug war, federal prisoners accounted for the largest share at 2,074.)

Among the Louisiana prisoners highlighted in the report are Fate Vincent Winslow, who, while homeless, “acted as a go-between in the sale of two small bags of marijuana, worth $10 in total, to an undercover police officer;” Timothy Jackson, who stole a jacket from a department store in New Orleans, Paul Carter, convicted of “possession of a trace amount of heroin residue that was so minute it could not be weighed;” and Sylvester Mead, a Shreveport man who drunkenly threatened a police officer while seated, handcuffed, in the back of a patrol car.

Mead’s case, like Winters’s, shows the way in which prosecutors’ wishes consistently trump judicial power when it comes to sentencing people for such crimes. Not only did his trial judge oppose the initial charge of public intimidation, he made it repeatedly clear he opposed sending Mead to die in prison. Mead’s verbal offense “does not warrant, under any conscionable or constitutional basis, a life sentence,” he said. But Mead’s prosecutor appealed multiple times seeking a harsher sentence because of his old convictions. After his previous sentences were vacated by a higher court multiple times, Judge Leon L. Emanuel was bound by Louisiana’s mandatory sentencing statute to hand down a sentence of life without parole. “No matter how long this Court were to deliberate about this matter, it cannot fashion a legal result to explain that the life sentence without probation or suspension of sentence is unconstitutionally excessive,” he concluded.

Such statements from judges are not unusual, it turns out. “In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision,” the ACLU found. Mandatory sentencing schemes are certainly to blame—in Louisiana, they account for almost all—97.6 percent—of the surveyed nonviolent LWOP sentences. But while mandatory sentencing ties the hands of judges, such punishments do not impose themselves. Prosecutors have the power to seek or not seek them.

* * *

Bill Winters was not the first defendant to find himself in the crosshairs of Lafayette ADA Alan Haney. Indeed, in 2007, Haney created a “career criminal program,” as described by the localDaily Advertiser, to “identify repeat offenders all over Lafayette Parish.”

“We basically had to start this whole project from scratch,” he told the City-Parish Council in September 2010, according to the Advertiser. Thus far, he boasted, some forty-nine people had been sentenced as habitual offenders with the help of the initiative.

In the fall of 2009, the same year Winters was convicted for stealing Gobstoppers, a 29-year-old black man named Travis Bourda was convicted for possessing 130 grams of marijuana “with intent to distribute.” Writing to the ACLU, Bourda insists that no drugs were actually found in his posession and that his court-appointed lawyer “filed no motions, failed to investigate,” and “made no objections at trial.” His initial sentence of eight years was increased to fourteen after Haney filed habitual offender charges based on Bourda’s previous record, which included “carnal knowledge of a juvenile” when he was 19. Responding to Haney’s attempt to seek a sentence of life without parole for Bourda, the trial judge wrote: “I believe a life sentence under the circumstances…would be an unconstitutional sentence. I believe that fourteen years is more than enough considering the underlying charge was possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and that the amount of marijuana involved was not significant.”

But in 2011 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Haney, vacating the fourteen-year sentence and imposing life without parole. Today, Bourda is serving his sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, famously known as Angola.

Angola prisoners were not allowed to receive visits or speak on the phone to the ACLU. But in response to the questionnaire sent out by attorney Jennifer Turner, who authored the report and corresponded with more than 600 prisoners, Bourda described himself as “the most miserable person there is.” He wrote that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was 13 and that he hears voices that tell him to do things. In a separate, handwritten letter, he wrote to “share my thoughts about the Habitual Offender law,” which he describes as “the most unconstitutional law there is.”

“We paid our debts to society for the past crimes we committed,” Bourda wrote.” “…There is never any forgiveness once you have a record.” In his opinion, he added, “the prosecution is abusing his discretion on a certain race of people which we know to be black individuals.”

Whether or not prosecutorial discretion is to blame, Bourda’s observation about race is certainly supported by the numbers. The ACLU report shows, and Turner wrote to me in an e-mail, that “the racial disparity in life without parole sentencing for nonviolent crimes in Louisiana is staggering.” While the state would not provide figures according to race, the ACLU calculated that black prisoners “comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent LWOP prison population in Louisiana,” despite the fact that “Blacks make up only about one-third of the general population in the state.” Black defendants in Louisiana “were 23 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to LWOP for a nonviolent crime.”

There are many factors that could explain this. “The racial disparity can result from disparate treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, points of arrest, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing,” Turner explains. She adds, “In Louisiana, it may also have to do with how prosecutors wield their enormous discretion in deciding whether to charge defendants as habitual offenders.”

I contacted Alan Haney’s office by phone and e-mail to discuss his Habitual Offender Division, but have not received a response. In the meantime, the ACLU report is only the most recent to cast a stark light on Louisiana’s sentencing excesses. While some recent reforms in the state have sought to mitigate some of Louisiana’s harshest sentencing statutes, they still preserve the power of the prosecutor to decide if and when to trigger mandatory sentences. In a report released by the Reason Foundation last month, which closely examines the state’s determinate sentencing laws and makes recommendations for reform, the authors found that a 2012 law signed by Governor Bobby Jindal to allow courts to waive mandatory minimums in some cases put all the power in prosecutors’ hands, giving prosecutors “much more power than they previously had.”

The ACLU also makes recommendations for reform. It calls on the states and federal government to get rid of laws that mandate or allow life without parole for nonviolent crimes, and exhorts state governors, as well as the Obama administration, to commute such disproportionate punishments. “Life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses defy common sense,” it concludes, and “are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish.”

In Bourda’s words, “I never committed a capital offense such as murder….I don’t deserve to be sentenced like a hard-core criminal.”

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10 thoughts on “Life in Prison for Stealing Candy? (DOUBLE Participation)

  1. This whole article struck me as very surprising. I know people that I have gone to high school with who have gotten in trouble with the law for shoplifting but all they had to do was like some community service and attend a seminar about crime. i find it interesting how they define a violent and non violent crimes. It reminds me of a girl i know who was 16 and got in a car accident and the court was going to put her on trial as an adult although she wasn’t over 18. I don’t understand how they can do that, it seems as though they make up the rules as they go.
    I was also surprised when they talked about the man convicted for threatening a police officer when he was handcuffed in the back of the car and he was drunk. he was obviously not a threat and people cannot filter appropriate things to say when they are intoxicated. Over all, this article make me question our judicial system more and makes me feel like it is all constructed with very blurred lines.

  2. This article shocked me. I do not think people deserve to be incarcerated for non violent crimes such as stealing candy. Considering Bill Winters was drunk when he stole the candy, It would have been more appropriate to try to rehabilitate him instead of locking him up. He had a history of non violent crimes, not violent ones that put other people at risk. Why bother incarcerating someone unless they are an actual threat to society? I know someone who robbed a convenient store at gunpoint and was only in jail for three years. This man stole gobstoppers and is now in prison for life. This makes me question the criminal justice system a lot.

    • I agree with everything you have stated. I mean what does this say about the criminal justice system when we are allowing someone to get away with murder while somebody else is in prison for stealing candy? Honestly, the system needs to rethink and review a case before the final decision is made.

  3. While reading this article i can’t help but think about how as a country we talk so much about how free our country is and how equal we treat everyone no matter the color of their skin, or their outside appearance in general, when in fact that is a lie. There is nothing to justify someone getting a life sentence for stealing candy, or having an ounce of marijuana that cannot even be measured because it is so small, especially because in other states it’s even considered legal once you’re 21 years of age. I believe that equal treatment is a necessity when it comes to law, which we aren’t displaying here. I am literally embarrassed for our criminal justice system. I cannot fathom why there isn’t a single person who doesn’t feel the same as I do that actually works in the system and isn’t doing something about the injustice. The only reason a person should ever be sentenced to life without parole is if they are convicted of murder, a child molester, a rapist, or if they have been convicted of inflicting physical harm on another person and are suspected to do so again (or animal but that’s just my animal loving opinion). There is proof in this article that race actually plays a key role in convictions. Most all statistics lean towards minority races, which in fact is unsettling to me. It makes me sick to think that my little brother who is half black, could be caught with less drugs than I, and there is a possibility he would get a life sentence whereas I would probably get off with some drug classes and a minor in possession charge. Now I understand that it is not always the judge himself, because we have laws which rule out any sentencing that the judges give, but I still believe that something could be done by those who are a part of that and are a higher authority. I know that drugs are bad, but how many people do you know that smoke marijuana harm people, or themselves? Most people just want to smoke dope and “chill.” No one is really harming anyone by being a stereotyped pot head. I also more or less see more white people smoking than black, however people are more quick to stop people of color and search them for whatever reason. I hate that things have to be this way, and it makes me wonder if things will ever change. I always thought we came a long way in the United States, but am started to second guess myself now.

  4. This article was very intriguing because these people’s stories were so bizarre. It actually amazes me that these people are put away for life for something as little as eating someone’s Gobbstoppers. It is wrong that they should be in prison even longer for previous crimes committed, which they have already been punished. The fact that these black males are being put away for life for non violent crimes is completely crazy and racist. If you have heard about the Gill family from Seattle, whom the mother and daughter were murdered by a white man. The Gill family is close to my family and every year they attend the murderer’s hearings to make sure he stays in for life, but this past year he was let go on parole. This circumstance amazes me also because he deserves to be punished for life for ending the life of two innocent people. Our whole justice system is completely wacked and they should figure out how to punish people based on the right circumstances.
    I honestly do not think having drugs on your possession or breaking and entering should result in a life sentence. Murderers, rapists, and other harmful people deserve to be put away for the rest of their lives, not these harmless people that probably just need help, not a lifetime of punishment.

  5. After reading this article I was irritated as to why Bill Winters was sentenced for stealing Gobstoppers. Although, Winters was intoxicated when the crime took place it does not mean he should have been locked up for so long. Also, his previous records show that he does not have any violent crimes he should have been locked up for at least breaking and entering. Basically, this article just states how rude and ignorant some people are in this world. The Assistant District Attorney (ADA) really should have been their research before just assuming that Mr. Winters was a danger to the public. I could remember when I was younger and I cannot quite remember who told me this but all I remember is being told that “what I do in my past can and will follow me throughout my whole life.” Clearly this just happened to be the case with Mr. Winter’s case. Also, while reading this article it made me think about my career once I graduate from college. Ever since I can remember I have always wanted to be a cop. This article made me think about my future career because what is going to happen once I become a cop, like will the justice system worse than what it is now or will it get better. Also, in relation to my career although I want to be a cop it made me think, could the reason why the ADA wanted such a long sentencing was because there was something in the police report that we do not know of. Besides that it also made me think about since I want be a cop, I want to help stop situations like this from happening. Finally, if Winters had been caught with a gun while committing the crime then yes I could see him being sentenced for a long period of time, but for just Gobstoppers it is too harsh of sentencing to be sentenced for as long they did.

  6. While I read this article I couldn’t help but think that since they had committed so many nonviolent crimes before, they were being sentenced life without parole because they want to prevent them from being able to commit a crime ever again, or to prevent their crimes from escalating to violent crimes. But then again, that is the reason people are put in jail, to keep them from committing another crime and to make them serve time for their crime. The fact that Louisiana, “the prison state”, has 4,637 nonviolent offenders serving LWOP sentences, compared to only 429 in Florida is shocking. Why is the number so much higher in Louisiana? Another astounding statistic in this article is that black prisoners make up 91.4% of the nonviolent prison population in Louisiana, and that blacks only make up 1/3 of the general population in the state. Black defendants are also 23 times more likely to be sentenced life without parole for a nonviolent crime. This makes me wonder if these statistics are a result of racism.

  7. Just as that man said in the video, things wont change until politicians stop worrying about the next election and start taking action on real problems happening now. It seems silly to have an abundance of criminals in prison for non-violent crimes when there are plenty of other, actually dangerous criminals around the country. I believe that funds should be used not to incarcerate these individuals but to help them, with rehab or meetings, anything that doesn’t involve them being taken away from their families.

    Then there is also the fact that once people have a record, any minor infraction could lead them straight to jail, but depending on the severity of the case, it seems reasonable that each case should be looked at individually, not collectively. This also brings up the issue of what is truly good reasoning and authority figures’ integrity. It will be impossible to expel completely any preconceived notions or stereotypes from law enforcers and interpreters but until certain prejudices are eradicated, things seem unlikely to change soon.

  8. The punishment system for our country always seemed a little strange to me. Punishment varies from case to case and some cannot be justified. Take for example the man in the article above, he stole Gobstoppers and now is in prison for life. This man had been confirmed by multiple people that he was not a threat to anyone but himself. Having been homeless and an addict he had gotten into some low profile demeanors. He needs to be rehabilitated not incarcerated. While this man whose only enemy is himself gets prison for life, a white male with intent to distribute large amounts of marijuana gets fourteen years. The justice system has to figure out a way to punish people accordingly and leave race aside. The crime needs to match the punishment, not only because it is just but because we are filling our prisons with candy thieves while drug dealers and child molesters are allowed to live amongst the public. The justice system needs to figure out how to punish the one who will inflict the most harm on the public instead of targeting those who can’t defend themselves with good lawyers…

  9. To me the key word that begins this post is “non-violent”. A non-violent person to me is a very calm person that rarely affects others with their actions. Non-violent criminals are people that break the law at the expense of themselves. Do they affect the public with these actions? Quite possibly but not in such a negative way where they are physically hurting someone. If someone is non-violent the odds are that they have lower tempers, maybe have a drug addiction or even were one time caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
    Now putting the label “non-violent” on someone by no means that they are a saint that should never be punished. But surely breaking into an office and only stealing candy is not a good reason to face hard time in jail. I really want to side with Withers because of his petty crime turned into life in prison because it is obviously unfair but c’mon you have been arrested 20 times? At some point you have to stay out of trouble and simply stop doing things that you should not be doing.
    Obviously the justice system has not treated this man well considering he is a habitual criminal having an arrest record like that. Jail does not scare him and he has not learned anything about ways to stay out of it. The man needs education and help with addiction, giving him life in jail does not help anyone. It cost the public money and he has never harmed anyone so it is not as if there is now a threatening civilian off the streets.
    I am impartial in this situation because I believe the man should not be getting so much jail time but I also think that he could have tried a little harder to stay out of jail and stay out of trouble throughout his lifetime. I blame the prison system for not trying to help him get on his feet and getting him out of this cycle of in and out multiple times.

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