In 2015, Roman Ostriakov was sentenced to six months in an Italian jail for attempting to steal $4.50 worth of cheese and sausage.
His sentence was finally overturned this week by a panel of judges for the sort of reason that restores your faith in humanity just a little bit.
According to a BBC report, the judges ruled that because Ostriakov was homeless and had stolen the food because he was desperately hungry, the theft was not a crime.
The ruling was a stunning display of compassion and a rare acknowledgment of the cost of being poor.
Ostriakov’s conviction and acquittal highlights the often harsh (and disproportionate) punishment meted out to crimes that are born out of poverty and desperation.
In the United States, things like conviction and sentencing disparities for crack versus cocaine and petty theft versus financial crime serve to reinforce the notion that being poor deserves an increased level of criminal scrutiny.
There is evidence that poverty — even when less extreme — primes people to make negative decisions.
A 2013 study, published in the journal Science, found that for the subjects of the experiment, who were poor, worrying about money noticeably impaired their ability to perform well on unrelated spacial and reasoning tasks.
Rather than wasting public resources throwing people in prison for being hungry, we can and should use those resources to make sure they’re not hungry in the first place.
In the U.S., that means supporting programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as SNAP or food stamps), which feeds millions of the hungriest Americans every year despite frequent efforts to draw down its funding or defund it entirely. It’s not always sufficient, but it’s often better than nothing — and ultimately a fairly small component (2.3%) of the federal budget.
Recently, more radical measures like universal basic income, which would provide in place of targeted social programs, have gained some traction with advocates on both sides of the aisle.
We can’t give everyone a free pass, but we certainly give them enough of a hand that they shouldn’t need one.
An editorial in an Italian newspaper — translated by the BBC — hailed the ruling for being a guided by a concept that “informed the Western world for centuries — it is called humanity.”
Better yet, let’s extend that humanity to hungry people before they’re forced to a choice to steal or starve — a choice that no person should have to make.