He was homeless and mentally ill. A judge sentenced him to 150 years. Is that justice?

There’s no argument: Jared Stephens committed a crime, and he deserved some form of punishment. We’re not suggesting that child pornography isn’t an evil act. Possessing it is a crime for good reason.

But the fight now in Florida courts to reduce the 150-year prison term Stephens received is about more than laws and sentences. It’s about how how our judicial system treats defendants with serious mental illness. The question is whether the 32-year-old man diagnosed with schizophrenia — who talked in court about shutting off electricity in Russia with his mind — should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Stephens is a former Arizona State University wrestler who became homeless after suffering from untreated schizophrenia for years. In 2016, he walked into a Sweetwater Best Buy and snatched a laptop and other merchandise. When employees confronted him, he pulled out his own laptop, declaring, ”Look, I have child pornography!” He began publicly showing his computer screen, lying down between two sets of sliding doors and perusing the illegal images as customers walked by.

His de facto life sentence appears outside of the norm. The Herald reported that between 2000 and 2017, people sent to prison for possession of child pornography in Miami-Dade County received a median term of three years; about one-third of defendants didn’t go to prison.This is based on data from the Florida Department of Corrections that Stephens’ defense submitted in court.

Stephens could have gotten those three years, plus required treatment, had he accepted a plea deal from prosecutors on one count of child-porn possession — a charge that seems to fit the crime better, based on what we know. Stephens wasn’t accused of producing or distributing the pornographic material.

He opted instead to go to trial, a decision his lawyers say was the result of his mental illness. The State Attorney’s Office then upped the charges to 30 counts, based on a forensic analysis that found his computer contained a cache of illegal images. The state asked asked for a 21-year sentence.

Still, that’s not even close to the off-the-charts 150 years handed down by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Veronica Diaz with “a minimum of public explanation,” the Herald reported. Diaz applied the maximum sentence allowed under law.

Few options

Stephens’ defense has exhausted all avenues of appeal, the Herald reported. His only recourse is the possibility of a sentence reduction as the case goes before a different and, perhaps, more pragmatic, judge, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Altfield. A hearing is scheduled for March 1. A psychological evaluation Stephens’ defense submitted in court this month states he’s unlikely to re-offend.

“I want a sentence that’s just and I want it as soon as possible,” Stephens’ lawyer Fan Li, who took over the case from the public defender’s office, told the Herald Editorial Board. “I know too many cases like this get punted down the road.”

It’s hard not to wonder what Stephens’ fate would have been were he not homeless, mentally ill; if his family had been in court and not thousands of miles away in Michigan, where they didn’t even know that he had been arrested; if Stephens weren’t Black, factors that historically have put defendants at a disadvantage.

Lack of treatment

In a perfect world, Stephens would’ve received treatment for his mental illness. He would have never become homeless or walked into that Best Buy. But virtually every day, people like him are arrested. Miami-Dade County spends $232 million a year to warehouse people with mental illness in jail, according to data from the Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Stephens’ case might have flown under the radar were it not for Diaz’s egregious sentence.

Because of his schizophrenia, he refused to talk or cooperate with his lawyers during the trial, so they did not know about his traumatic past, how he saw his two younger brothers die in an apartment fire as a child. Once a promising college athlete and student, Stephens’ mental health began deteriorating in his early 20s. He dropped out of Arizona State University and disappeared from his family’s life until he wrote a letter to his mother telling her about his sentence. His attorneys presented the new information to Diaz, but she refused to change his sentence.

With the question of the sentence now before Altfield, state prosecutors said at a Feb. 2 hearing that they supported keeping the century-and-a-half sentence in place because Stephens had been uncooperative and unwilling to undergo mental-health evaluations. (That rigid mindset remains despite an assistant state attorney admitting at a previous hearing she was “taken aback” by the sentence, the Herald reported.)

And that’s a mighty curious change in stance by the State Attorney’s Office: from three years in the plea to 21 years during the trial to 150 years today. State Attorney’s Office spokesman Ed Griffith told the Herald Editorial Board that a plea agreement always offers defendants less prison time.

Second opinion

Stephens’ defense did convince him to undergo a a “psychosexual evaluation and risk assessment” by a forensic psychologist. The Feb. 3 report concluded that he is “97% likely to never have another arrest for any child pornography or hands-on offense” and that his behavior at Best Buy was a result of schizophrenia.

Griffith said prosecutors were evaluating the report. Reaching an agreement on a sentence reduction is a “possibility,” but prosecutors might ask for a second expert opinion. Griffith also said the state must consider public safety before coming to a compromise with his defense. He pointed out that mental illness and competency — legal terms used to determine if someone is capable of participating in legal proceedings — often get convoluted. A person can have a mental disorder and still be deemed competent, he said.

“Child pornography is one of the great concerns of our society right now,” Griffith said. “You have to take public safety into consideration.”

There’s no doubt that public safety is a concern. But where were those concerns when the three-year plea deal was on the table?

If Stephens’ sentence is reduced, the question then becomes what will happen to him. Sending Stephens back into society with no help or resources would almost guarantee that he enters the street-to-jail pipeline that traps so many people with mental illness.

There is an impending alternative. The 208-bed Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery will treat people with mental illness before and after they get arrested. It is scheduled to open later this year.

There are no easy solutions for how our judicial system should treat people like Stephens. But does the lack of a perfect solution mean Stephens should be locked up for the rest of his life? We’re not oblivious to the fact that his plight is not a popular cause. People should be held accountable for their crimes, but sentencing him to life behind bars smacks of punishment unfairly applied.

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