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April 22, 2016

Just how should sentencing law deal with a truly habitual petty criminal?

This morning I came across this recent Huffington Post piece lamenting in its headline a seemingly a very severe application of Louisiana's habitual offender law: "Louisiana Man May Face Life For Shoplifting Snickers Bars: Critics say the case shows how habitual-offender laws can bully small-time crooks into pleading guilty rather than risking the consequences of a trial." To its credit, the HuffPo piece use this latest shoplifting case story to talk more generally about how severe mandatory sentencing laws can functionally place tremendous pressure on a defendant to plead guilty to try to avoid an extreme prison term.

But, rather use this story to reiterate my long-standing disaffinity for severe mandatory sentencing provisions (especially because of the often unchecked power it can place in the hands of prosecutors), I did a bit of digging into the story behind the habitual offender now in big trouble for his candy caper, and what I found prompted the question in the title of this post.  Consider specifically the factual backstory reported in this local piece headlined "Accused New Orleans candy thief, facing 20 years to life, turns down deal for 4 years":

New Orleans shoplifter Jacobia Grimes, facing a possible sentence of 20 years to life for stuffing $31 worth of candy bars into his pockets at a Dollar General store, has rejected a plea offer from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office that would have seen him serve a four-year sentence as a double offender, his attorney said Friday.

The offer was the same sentence that Grimes agreed to serve when he pleaded guilty in 2010 to swiping socks and trousers in a similar shoplifting attempt. Grimes, 34, did not appear in court for a hearing Friday. He remains jailed on a violation of his $5,000 bond, having tested positive last week for opiates, cocaine, oxycodone and marijuana.

But Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich again suggested to prosecutors and Grimes’ attorneys that they work out a deal for less jail time, followed by probation and drug treatment. Zibilich noted Grimes’ lengthy criminal record, which includes more than a dozen arrests since 2000. Most of the nearly nine years he has spent in prison since 2001 were the result of shoplifting convictions, records show. “I agree he has to pay the consequences, even though it’s candy. I would like to see some sort of split sentence,” Zibilich said.

However, Assistant District Attorney Iain Dover said state law may not allow it, given Grimes’ status as a potential “quad” offender under the state’s habitual offender law. “I can’t see how we get there under the law,” Dover said.

Cannizzaro’s office charged Grimes in a bill of information Feb. 3 under a state statute for theft of goods by someone with multiple convictions for the same thing. His earlier convictions elevated his alleged candy heist, on Dec. 9 at a Dollar General store on South Claiborne Avenue, to a felony. Whether Grimes would face 20 years to life if he’s convicted of the candy theft would be up to Cannizzaro’s office. State laws give prosecutors discretion following a conviction to raise the ante by filing a “multiple bill.”

His case, given the nature of the crime and the possible penalty, has gained wide attention, prompting Cannizzaro to publicly dismiss the notion that he would seek such a heavy sentence for a shoplifter. Dover argued that Grimes’ criminal record shows that slaps on the wrist don’t seem to work. “It’s not the state’s fault. It’s this guy’s fault. He’s had a chance. He’s had the opportunities,” Dover said.

Zibilich suggested that both sides could agree to go below the mandatory minimum prison sentence in a plea deal that includes treatment, so long as nobody challenged it. “Do we have to be married to every single syllable of this book?” he asked of the state’s penal code.

Grimes’ trial is scheduled for May 26. His attorneys, Miles Swanson and Michael Kennedy, have opted to forgo a jury and let Zibilich decide the case.

This only things that seems really obvious to me in this case is that even some extended stints in state prison are not working to help Jacobia Grimes stop being a petty criminal.  Even recognizing that incapacitating this petty criminal via incarceration is likely not especially cost effective for the taxpayers of Louisiana, at this point what other punishment options would you suggest the prosecutor and judge seriously consider under these circumstances?

April 22, 2016 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

Comments

This is a tough case because none of his crimes individually amount to much but the cumulative impact of the repetitive lawbreaking is a problem. There was a remark I once heard by a judge who commented that some people get the attention they need from society via the criminal justice system. This is probably such a case. His actions are a plea and a cry for help. Such a realization doesn't help much with producing an actual sentence, though. I don't know. Jail is obviously not the best place for this person but what other alternatives are there--I hear the judges frustration in that regard.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 22, 2016 4:40:19 PM

This is the sort of case that makes me think serious corporal punishment should be tried. Give the man a caning instead of prison time and maybe he'll decide that he really doesn't like the consequences of his actions.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 22, 2016 4:44:42 PM

As a practical matter, jail's not really a punishment for the guy. His difficulty is maintaining sobriety and living with some modicum of self discipline in the real world. So that's the appropriate sentence. Strong probation with sufficient supports so that it's not unreasonable to demand that he meet the requirements. Use HOPE-probation style short-jail-incarceration stints to enforce compliance. More expensive than regular probation, but still a lot cheaper than incarcerating him for four years, much less 20 to life.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 23, 2016 2:03:50 PM

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