Pismo Beach man’s food-stealing doesn’t warrant jail

Tyler Jarvis, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, sits with his mom, Michelle Christian, at their Pismo Beach home.
Tyler Jarvis, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, sits with his mom, Michelle Christian, at their Pismo Beach home. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Like many respected institutions, the criminal justice system isn’t always in the best position to deal appropriately with situations that fall outside the norm. That’s not a reflection on prosecutors, judges or juries. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that there are times when the usual rules and regulations don’t make sense.

We believe that’s the case with Tyler Jarvis, the 19-year-old Pismo Beach man who has Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare disorder that causes him to constantly crave food.

It’s not unusual for people with the disorder to get in trouble with the law; their unrelenting hunger can drive them to steal from convenience stores or to break into homes to forage for food or steal money for groceries.

That’s what happened to Jarvis.

As Tribune writer Pat Pemberton reported on Sunday, Jarvis is accused of burglarizing two houses last September. He wasn’t arrested then, but last November he was taken into custody and jailed for six days after allegedly breaking into another South County home — an incident that led the frightened homeowner to chase after Jarvis with a shovel.

Jarvis now faces a variety of charges, including three felony counts of residential burglary.

Like many in the community, we find it extremely troubling that a young man in this situation would be criminally prosecuted.

Not only is Jarvis driven to eat constantly, but he also has the intellectual capacity of an elementary school student, making it difficult for him to comprehend the seriousness of his actions.

We have to ask, is there no other way to deal with such cases? Handling this as a criminal proceeding subjects a family already dealing with an extremely challenging situation to even more stress.

The District Attorney’s Office says it isn’t seeking to put Jarvis in prison. That’s good.

“Our office is very concerned about Mr. Jarvis and his well-being as well as finding an appropriate / just disposition for his cases,” District Attorney Dan Dow wrote on The Tribune’s website. “We have never suggested prison (or even jail) would be appropriate for Mr. Jarvis. As the article points out, our prosecutor has offered a disposition that includes no custody time, and that allows him to go to the group home.”

Everyone involved with the case — including Jarvis’ mother, who also serves as his conservator — believes placement in a group home is the appropriate option. In fact, Jarvis is scheduled for a temporary, trial stay at a group home in Riverside starting this weekend.

The District Attorney’s Office also believes, however, that a felony conviction is the best way to ensure Jarvis stays in a supervised group home because he would face being sent to prison if he were to leave.

But according to experts, a felony record does not deter people with Prader-Willi.

“There is no counseling, no penalty, no medication, no magic word that will stop (people with the disorder) from making poor decisions,” said Ken Smith, executive director of the National Prader-Willi Syndrome Association.

The best course of action, he said, is placement in a group home specializing in Prader-Willi.

“If he’s in an appropriate program designed for 24-hour-a day, seven-day-a-week supervision, this shouldn’t happen,” Smith said.

So why not dismiss the charges — or at the very least, settle for a misdemeanor conviction — and allow Jarvis to enter a group home now rather than dragging out a criminal proceeding?

We strongly urge the District Attorney’s Office to give that option the opportunity to work before saddling Jarvis with a felony conviction for “crimes” he was driven to commit.