Dubya’s Jean Valjean

What will Gov. George W. Bush do about the Jean Valjean of Texas? On Dec. 17, Kenneth Payne, 29, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for stealing a $1 candy bar from a grocery in Tyler, Texas. (To read an April 7 Dallas Morning News story about it, click here.) When the Associated Press asked Smith County Assistant District Attorney Jodi Brown whether this punishment was excessive, she said, “It was a king-size. And it was a Snickers bar. If it was a Milky Way, we probably wouldn’t have even tried him on it.”

Smith County District Attorney Jack Skeen later called Brown’s joke “inappropriate,” but he also said, “I don’t have any second thoughts about the prosecution of the defendant considering the number of convictions that he’s had.” According to the Morning News, Skeen’s misdemeanor theft was bumped up to a felony because he had 10 prior convictions. Among other things, he’s been busted for assault, drug possession, and theft. These are all, to be sure, serious crimes (though apparently one of Payne’s earlier theft convictions was for shoplifting a bag of Oreos). Still, as numerous legal experts have pointed out since AP broke the story last week, 16 years is a long stay in the slammer for stealing a candy bar. Some might even call it wasteful government spending. A $1 candy bar, after all, costs $1, whereas it will cost the state of Texas $14,000 a year to keep Payne incarcerated. That isn’t to say, of course, that Payne (or anyone else) should have to steal more than $14,000 to make a year’s prison stay worth imposing; obviously the cost-benefit accounting is more complex than that. But if Payne serves the full 16 years, it will have cost Texas $224,000 to punish him for the theft of a $1 candy bar. If Payne had accepted a plea bargain offered him, he would have been sentenced to eight years, which would have cost $112,000.

Is Dubya going to do anything about this? Not clear. An aide in the governor’s office reminded Chatterbox that there’s an appeals process to go through. Robert Dawson, a professor of law at the University of Texas, further explained that in Texas, the governor has lacked the power to grant clemency on his own since the 1920s, when one of Dubya’s predecessors got caught selling pardons. Bush can act only if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends clemency. (When Bush declined to block Karla Faye Tucker’s execution, he was really just declining to delay it 30 days, which would have been all he could do, since the Board of Pardons and Paroles didn’t recommend clemency in that case.) For that to happen, however, someone has to request clemency. “We do not have any requests on Mr. Kenneth Payne at this time,” the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ Maria Ramirez told Chatterbox.

Meanwhile, Chatterbox waits for some enterprising reporter on the Bush campaign plane to ask Bush what he thinks of the conviction, and whether, if prodded by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, he will consider springing Payne.

[Click here to read a follow-up to this article.]