A teen-ager sentenced to three years in prison for stealing several Snickers ice cream bars from a rural schoolhouse won't be on ice after all.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Dehundra Caldwell probation last week.
"Our job is to be the conscience of the state, to decide when a sentence is fair," chairman Tommy Morris said.
Morris said that Caldwell's sentence was unusually harsh but that he found no reason to suspect that the 17-year-old was treated that way because he is black, as critics had contended.
Superior Court Judge Andrew Whalen, who is white, sentenced Caldwell after the teen-ager pleaded guilty to burglary Aug. 23. Caldwell, who was charged as an adult, said he received little assistance from his public defender. He served 10 days before being released on bail pending the board's decision.
Under terms of his probation, he must finish high school and tutor a fellow student. If he doesn't, the 11th-grader will be sent to a boot camp for young offenders.
In any event, the burglary conviction will stay on his record.
"I'm happy because I don't have to go to jail, but I feel that it shouldn't have gone this far," Caldwell said at news conference at the Atlanta office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I know I can get it off my mind and get through this. I'm going to try my best to make it," he said, adding that he plans to major in computer science in college.
The stiff sentence for a youth with no previous record outraged many in Thomaston, a small community about 50 miles south of Atlanta.
"What happened to Dehundra Caldwell was commonplace," said Bruce Roberts of the NAACP in Atlanta. "It's an overreaction to the idea that black males are violence-prone. So often, the discipline way outstrips the offense."
Whalen said that the case was handled properly.
Caldwell, his 15-year-old brother and a 16-year-old friend were on their way to play basketball July 11 when they stopped by the Upson-Lee Middle School in Thomaston. They took the ice cream bars from a cafeteria freezer.
Caldwell contended they went through an unlocked door, though authorities said they found signs of forced entry.
The other two teen-agers--who allegedly took the ice cream--were sentenced in juvenile court. Caldwell's brother was ordered to perform community service; the other youth, who had a criminal record, was sent to a detention home.