What This Outrageous Case Is Pointing Out About A Much Bigger Problem

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Jacobia Grimes is accused of committing a crime that seems fitting for a sticky-fingered 8-year-old. The 35-year-old New Orleans man allegedly stole $31 dollars in candy bars from a Dollar General in December 2015. But the sweet-toothed theft could have huge consequences — because Grimes has prior convictions, the crime carries a possible sentence of 20 years to life in prison. Grimes, previously out on bond, was jailed on April 5 after failing a drug test at a court hearing. The story has gone viral, with many pointing out the discrepancy between the seriousness of the crime and the potential sentence. Thanks to Louisiana’s habitual offender laws, Grimes is being charged with a felony, according to The Associated Press. Grimes has multiple prior convictions — all for minor thefts adding up to no more than $500. “Isn’t this a little over the top?” Criminal District Judge Franz Zibilich asked at Grimes’ March 31 arraignment, according to The Advocate. Grimes has pleaded not guilty. New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told The Times-Picayune on Tuesday that the prosecutor’s office didn’t intend to seek the outlandish sentence for Grimes, saying that “there was never a threat” to do so. Though Grimes was eligible by the state's habitual offender laws to be charged under the "quad" offender statute, which carried the potential life sentence, Cannizzaro said that prosecutors declined to prosecute him as such. He told the publication that the long sentence had never been considered until the judge brought it up. He added that his office had been left little choice but to prosecute Grimes thanks to a lack of rehabilitative programs available.
The case is drawing attention to what some argue are terrible flaws in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the country, with more than 1,000 people for every 100,000 U.S. adults in the state’s prisons. In 2009, the Pew Research Center found that 1 in 26 adults in the state were under correctional control.
“The simplest thing to say is that [criminal justice in] Louisiana is a mess. A complete and utter failure,” Andrew Cohen, the commentary editor at The Marshall Project, told Refinery29. The habitual offender laws, which can put low-level, nonviolent criminals like Grimes in prison for long sentences, have likely contributed to the state’s overwhelming incarceration rate. According to a 2013 report published by libertarian research organization, Reason Foundation, “By continuing to allow for the habitual offender law to apply to offenders convicted of second and third nonviolent, non-sex offenses, a larger number of offenders will continue to be sentenced to serve much longer prison sentences than they otherwise would be assigned, which makes them more expensive to incarcerate.” The report called such sentences “grossly disproportionate” and against the basic principles of criminal justice. And that's not the state's only problem when it comes to criminal justice. As stated above, Louisiana is known for its high incarceration rate, and it has also been accused of neglecting to provide HIV-positive prisoners with medical care. Additionally, in January of this year, the city of New Orleans had to begin turning away public defense requests due to the public defender's office being drastically underfunded. “It is broken as a matter of race, it is broken as a matter of class," Cohen said. "It is broken in the sense that the judges there routinely permit unjust convictions to stand. I mean, if you were to draw up a state’s criminal justice system with a view towards having it be faulty at nearly every turn, you would look at Louisiana first.” Cohen points out successful criminal justice reform in neighboring, similarly conservative states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, which have passed legislation to reform their approaches to minor crime — saving themselves money in the process. In 2012, Georgia passed HB 1176, which laid out a gradient of seriousness for nonviolent offenses like forgeries, theft, and drug possession. In the years since, the state’s prison population has gradually, but consistently, dropped. “The lesson of the past two years is that very, very traditional Republican states, notoriously tough on crime, have come to the conclusion that there is a smarter way to do criminal justice so that more money is spent on schools and other things as opposed to prisons and courts,” Cohen said.

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