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Life imitates art in a Wisconsin shoplifting case

Many believe that the pursuit of justice must be tempered with mercy. This is a difficult line to walk in the criminal justice system, because judges do not always know the motives of defendants or their capacity for reform. Moreover, courtrooms in many Wisconsin cities need to shuffle cases through quickly, leaving little time for discussion or explanation.

Thankfully, however, there are some judges willing to give criminal defendants the benefit of the doubt. In a recent case that was discussed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a judge compared the defendant’s shoplifting charge to the actions of Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” and offered a unique sentence.

For those who are unfamiliar with the book, musical or movie, the protagonist in “Les Miserables” begins the story as part of a crew of criminals serving hard-labor sentences. His crime, the story notes, was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child.

In the real-life case before the Wisconsin judge, a 30-year-old single mother had been busted for shoplifting a bottle of children’s cough medicine that cost less than $15.00. The woman is unemployed and it is believed that the medicine was intended for her child.

Moreover, the woman seems to have no previous criminal record. In court, she admitted guilt and demonstrated remorse for her offense.

The judge could have just given the defendant a $336 ticket for shoplifting. In light of the facts of the case, however, he made a deal with her. She was instructed to go home and watch the movie version of “Les Miserables.” Then, in December, she is supposed to come back and discuss the movie with the judge in his chambers. The clerk and bailiff would be present. If she does this, the judge agreed to reduce her fine to $99 or less.

Commenting to a news reporter, the judge said: "I asked her to watch the movie so we can discuss how theft affects people's lives, just to make sure she's not going to be stealing anymore, or at least does not have the heart of a thief.” He also noted that a sentence like this is unusual for him, but that he felt it was appropriate.

Mercy is important in criminal justice because it recognizes that people are not defined by the few bad acts they may commit. Individuals willing to accept responsibility for their mistakes should be shown compassion.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Judge finds lesson in 'Les Miserables' for mom who stole cough syrup,” Jim Stingl, Nov. 1, 2014

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