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Florida Man Nixes 3-Year Plea Deal, Gets 150-Year Term For Child Porn

Jared Stephens, diagnosed with years of untreated schizophrenia, is fighting a de facto life sentence for possession of child pornography, reports the Miami Herald. In 2016, Stephens, a former wrestler at Arizona State University who became homeless, walked into a Best Buy. He snatched a $399.99 laptop, and other merchandise totaling $157.96 and tried to walk out without paying. Confronted by employees, he resisted, then pulled his own laptop out of a backpack and declared, “look, I have child pornography!” Stephens, then 25, marched in and out of the store with his laptop playing a video of child abuse, tilting his computer screen so it was visible to a surveillance camera. He perused illicit images as shoppers flowed by, until police hauled him to jail. That act sent Stephens on an odyssey through the criminal justice system, resulting in a sentence of 150 years in prison. Stephens’ sentence is being reconsidered by a different judge. At a hearing, prosecutors suggested they may be open to Stephens’ sentence being reduced if he agrees to receive mental health treatment. The question of whether Stephens should spend his life in prison is a test for a justice system that must take into account the horrors of child pornography, the lifelong trauma it inflicts on victims and the reality that few prosecutors or judges want to be seen as soft on any crime. Courts are also grappling with questions of basic fairness when it comes to punishing people with severe mental illness.


Stephens made outlandish claims at his criminal trial, asserting he could command African armies and shut off electricity to Russia with the power of his mind. He largely refused to talk to his lawyers. Court-appointed psychologists diagnosed him with schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that can affect how a person thinks and feels, often causing them to behave as if they have lost touch with reality. Fan Li, a private attorney now representing Stephens, said that courts are ill-equipped to handle people experiencing mental illness, leading to widespread “unjust prosecutions and sentences.” Li said his clients struggling with mental health often ended up in prison instead of getting desperately needed treatment in psychiatric facilities. “The problem is there’s not enough beds around,” he said. “So prison is this storage room that we as a society decided we’re going to put all the people that could be rehabilitated.” Stephens’ presumptive release date is July 4, 2166, when he would be 175. He did not produce or distribute the illegal images, which would typically lead to a longer sentence. A state appeals court upheld his long sentence, labeling it “quite harsh.” Stephens, now 32 and confined in one of Florida’s most feared prisons, checked many of the boxes that hamper defendants from getting a fair shake in court: He was homeless, poor, Black, mentally ill and cut off from friends and family. Had he accepted a plea deal when it was originally offered, he could have been sentenced to just three years in prison, as well as treatment in a program for “mentally disordered sex offenders.”

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