Yesterday I was walking along, getting angry about things that happened two years ago, you know, as you do. This episode of Getting Mad About Stuff On A Rainy Day concerned a conversation I had with my former housemate, Andrew, about the morality of stealing. I don’t steal from individuals, but I have sometimes stolen from big box stores, corporations, etc…When I was living with my friend Lauren in high school and had only a shitty-paying part-time job, I used to empty out a box of band-aids into another box of band-aids and just buy the one box with twice as many band-aids. And when I gave myself a “discount” of 100% on my daily cheese steak at Charley’s because we weren’t even given free lunch to make our ridiculous minimum wage paychecks sting a little less.
Andrew was aghast when I told him this. I pointed out that CVS can handle $1.19 worth of band-aids being stolen, and that I didn’t really care about the company’s feelings getting hurt. He said I was stealing from shareholders. Pointing out that the damage I was doing to families who had stock in CVS (or Charley’s) was so infinitesimal as to be completely harmless had no effect on his opinion–he, like many Americans, is obsessed with the idea that personal property is sacred.
Like Charles Davis points out, we live in a time of plenty, and a time of serious exploitation. It’s our attitude about who deserves what, and which ideals should be upheld by severe punishment, that are seriously messed up.
In Alabama, stealing property worth $500 is a felony. Your sentence for stealing, say, a bicycle would be at least two years in jail. In Colorado, you go to jail for a minimum of four months for stealing less than $500 worth of property. If you steal livestock valued at over $150 in Idaho, you go to prison for 1-14 years.
This is outrageous. Incarceration is one of the worst things you can do to a person, both for humane reasons and because of the permanent effects on their life. Emotional damage and ruptured relationships totally aside, having been incarcerated reduces your chances of finding employment outside of prison like nothing else. Sixty percent of ex-cons in New York were still unemployed a year after their release, according to this article, and that’s not even the highest percentage I’ve heard.
So the question is, why do we destroy people’s lives over what are, let’s face it, generally pretty mild crimes? Because we believe private property is such an important concept that we need to severely punish–to the point of economically and psychologically hamstringing–people who don’t play by this particular rule.
I’m not advocating for communism, here–I don’t have to be Marx to recognize that locking a human being up for taking something that belongs to someone else is a completely absurd concept. Think about it this way–when a child takes their friend’s toy, do we throw them in the bathroom and leave them there for a year? No. They have to give the toy back, apologize, and sit in the corner for five minutes. We should be doing the same for adults. Yes, adults should “know better,” but the punishment should still fit the crime. It would be perfectly reasonable to require thieves to return (or reimburse the victim for) the stolen item(s), apologize, and do 10 hours of community service.
The justice system is meant to uphold the morals of a country. We punish what we believe is morally wrong. Everyone’s heard the phrase “victimless crime,” and although we know that that’s technically impossible, most people agree on degrees of wrongness. Injuring a person is very wrong. Injuring a child is very, very wrong. Stealing a pair of socks from Walmart is not terribly bad. Picking up a five dollar bill on a sidewalk and not attempting to find the owner is not very wrong at all.
We already know that the justice system is populated with judges unsympthetic to people of color, and uneducated on the systemic racial inequality they face. We also know POC get disproportionally targeted by law enforcement. This is yet another way in which POC and poor white people get disenfranchised–Draconion punishments for simple crimes of property. One of the steps toward a justice system that doesn’t keep reinforcing a permanent underclass is to relax our puritan death grip on crimes of property.