53-year-old Levi Mitchell, a homeless man who tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy food and toothpaste, is going to jail for at least three years.

That will cost New York taxpayers more than $200,000, according to 2015 figures from the Vera Institute of Justice.

In an appellate court decision from earlier this week, Mitchell’s original sentence of four to eight years for the counterfeit bill was reduced to three to six years because of a nonviolent felony offense nine years ago. The appellate court argued that the three to six-year sentence was the least amount of time they could give him due to his record.

“The reduced sentence, which is the minimum permissible legal sentence, reflects an enhancement for the predicate nonviolent felony,” judges wrote. “His more recent convictions have all been nonviolent misdemeanors, and they are mostly related to his longtime drug addiction.”

Levi Mitchell was initially arrested after a cashier refused to accept the counterfeit bill Mitchell tried to use to buy a tube of toothpaste, and after police spotted him trying to buy food with counterfeit currency at a fast food restaurant. When police searched Mitchell, they found five counterfeit $20 bills.

Because Mitchell is serving more than one year in jail, he’ll do his time at a state prison in upstate New York, rather than in a New York City jail, where it costs nearly $120,000/year to house just one inmate. However, New York is still the most expensive state to house an inmate according to Vera. The nonprofit criminal justice reform group estimated in 2015 that it cost an average of $69,355 each year for each inmate, based on New York’s $3.68 billion corrections budget and its prison population of 53,181 inmates.

Mitchell’s original four to eight-year sentence is comparable to the 81-month sentence (just shy of seven years) given to former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who killed Laquan McDonald — a teenager — by shooting him in the back multiple times in 2014. However, Van Dyke is expected to only serve 50 percent of his sentence, meaning he and Mitchell will likely serve roughly the same amount of time behind bars.


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.


  1. Just think….A homeless man tried use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy toothpaste and now he will enjoy free food, a bed and shelter for three years and it will only cost the New York taxpayers $360,000.00. What a bargain for him. Incidentally, If I had owed the store, I would have just given him the toothpaste and have provided him with a warm meal and a real $20 bill.

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