Appeals court upholds homeless mother’s prison sentence for stealing food

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Marlena Woods said she stole food from a Jacksonville Wal-Mart only because “she and her four children were homeless and living in the woods, and she (needed) to feed her children and herself.”

But an appellate court panel on Wednesday nonetheless upheld her 18-month prison sentence for the shoplifting charge.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee unanimously agreed that the trial judge was wrong to give her prison time without “a jury determination.”

But its opinion also said “that the error here was harmless.”

Woods ran afoul of a state law covering punishment for defendants who are “a danger to the public.”

She pleaded guilty to felony petty theft, which carried a maximum of five years in prison. Under sentencing guidelines, however, she could have qualified for a county jail term instead.

But prosecutors argued Woods was a danger because of her prior record, in part “asserting that she was arrested for the theft less than a month after being released from jail where she served time for a previous theft,” the opinion said.

“The court agreed with the state that (Woods) presented a danger to the public, and sentenced (her) to 18 months in state prison,” it added.

The law “allows judges to impose a more punitive sentence – incarceration in state prison – on the basis of an additional factual finding(, but the Constitution) requires such a finding to be made by a jury, and not a judge,” according to the opinion.

That said, the judges found “no rational jury would have declined to find that she posed a financial danger to the public based on her three prior (petty) theft convictions, her prior burglary conviction, and the fact that she committed the instant offense soon after her release from jail.”

Woods is serving her time in the Gadsden Correctional Facility, about 30 miles west of Tallahassee. Department of Corrections records show a tentative release date this Oct. 13.

1st DCA Judge Brad Thomas wrote the opinion, in which appellate Judge Susan Kelsey and associate Judge William F. Stone concurred. Stone, a circuit judge, normally sits in Okaloosa County.

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.