Life in Prison for Shoplifting

by Project Censored

There are currently 3,281 prisoners in America serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for non-violent minor, crimes. Although imprisoning people for life without a chance of parole is not legal in the European court, it is still legal, and currently happening in the U.S. Louisiana is one of the nine states that are currently involved in this, Louisiana being the strictest due to their three-strike law, which states that after three offenses the person is to be put in prison for life without a chance of getting out. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has calculated that to keep these prisoners locked up for life taxpayers are paying around 1.8 billion dollars.

In one example, a man named Timothy Jackson took a $159 jacket, draped it over his arm and exited the store, when asked why he took it he claimed he “needed another jacket.” At the time of the crime Jackson was under the influence of drugs. Jackson has been incarcerated for seventeen years in a federal prison in Louisiana and will stay there for the rest of his life. He would have only served a six-month sentence for the shoplifting incident, but due to the fact that he was awaiting trial for other minor crimes, he met the three-strike law and is now in prison for life. A few months later the case was reviewed; described him as a “petty theft,” and the court threw out the sentence. A year later the state’s Supreme Court gave a final ruling and came to the conclusion that the Louisiana’s four-strike law can only be overturned in rare instances; Jackson was put back in jail and sentenced to life without parole.

Another man currently serving life in prison is Ronald Washington of Shreveport, Louisiana, now forty eight years old. The crime this man committed was in 2004, when he walked out of a Foot Action shoe store with two Michael Jordan jerseys, which were both on sale for forty five dollars each, thus totaling ninety dollars. Instead, the state of Louisiana took the full price of these jerseys which was sixty dollars each, and held him accountable for one hundred and twenty dollars of stolen merchandise. In this state shoplifting cases over one hundred dollars are considered felonies, for which Ronald Washington was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in Angola Prison.


Ed Pilkington, “More Than 3000 U.S. Prisoners Locked Up for Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Crimes,” Ed Pilkington, AlterNet, November 13, 2013.

– Pasco, Jessica M. “Three Strikes, He’s Out,” Santa Cruz Good Times, 06 Nov. 2013.

Student Researchers: Pietro Pizzani, Indian River State College; Mia Hulbert, Indian River State College

Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College



The main ethical problem presented here is the sheer fact that while serving a life in prison, these two individuals, Timothy Jackson and Ronald Washington, and others like them, have been stripped of their freedom for the commission of petty offenses, and will die in a confined place; and with every passing day will remember the trivial crimes they had previously committed that had sealed their fate. Many people value the feeling of being alive, mainly because every new day means it’s a new start. It gives one a chance to change something from yesterday and grow to make something of oneself to make for a better future. These men and women who are in prison for life will never have that opportunity again, to set foot back into the world and begin a new life free of crime. The law is stripping men and women of their natural birth rights, the opportunity to live life and learn from their mistakes and even potentially fix them in the future. They can restore such rights and give the opportunity to renew life amongst these men and women, but they are not offered parole to do so.
A few months after Jackson was sentenced to life in prison Louisiana’s appeals court reviewed the case and found that the punishment was excessive and described him as a petty thief, they threw out his sentence. A year later the States Supreme Court gave a final ruling, although the judge felt that the punishment was excessive she stated that the three-strikes law is only to be overturned in very rare cases, not including this case. Jackson was reinstated and put back in jail for life, without the chance of parole. This is ethically wrong in many ways. You can’t give a man his rights back just to turn around and revoke them again, not a man that simply committed nonviolent, petty crimes. The judge and Supreme Court both agreed that the sentence this man was given is extreme, but he was still sentenced to life in jail after he was given his freedom back. What these prisoners did was wrong, but not getting the sentence that correlates with the crime they committed is more wrong.

Now Jackson and the others no longer have the choices they had when they were free, stripped of all liberties and set in a cage to die. Thinking about it, what is the purpose for keeping them alive? They might as well be sentenced to death because there should be no point in suffering in such a cruel way.

Law enforcement officials should have considered this: Did the attempted retail theft of a one hundred and fifty dollar leather jacket, or a pair of Michael Jordan jerseys, cause as much suffering to anyone as it did those put in prison for trying to take them without payment? The answer is more than obvious here; it did not cause one bit of suffering to anyone except for Jackson and Washington. Sadly the law has also destroyed the families of these and other incarcerated men and women. Some children will be separated from their mothers or fathers; brothers and sisters will never have the support of each other again; and mothers and fathers will have limited opportunity to see their children. This is all because of an unjust judgment against these people. The constitutionality of these convictions, and the laws that put these people away for life, should be revisited and the sentences overturned.