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National

New Orleans Man Faces 20 Years To Life For Candy Bar Theft

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Louisiana has one of the strongest repeat offender laws in the U.S. And in New Orleans, that could now put a man in prison for a possible 20 years to life for stealing candy bars.

Jacobia Grimes was arrested in December, charged with pocketing about $30 worth of candy from a Dollar General store. He's been convicted of theft five times before. John Simerman of The New Orleans Advocate has been following this case and joins us now. Hi there.

JOHN SIMERMAN: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Jacobia Grimes is known as a quad offender. What exactly does that mean, and how can it possibly send him to jail for a very long time for stealing candy bars?

SIMERMAN: Well, it means he has prior felony convictions. All of them seem to be for shoplifting, or most of them. None of them appear to be violent. In this case, Louisiana law allows a DA to charge him with a felony for shoplifting $30 worth of candy.

It's a statute that says that if you have two prior convictions for theft of goods, then your next one escalates to a felony. And that draws in all of his prior convictions, and that makes him a quad offender eligible for 20 years to life at the discretion of the district attorney.

SHAPIRO: You reported that when he was arraigned late last week the presiding judge, speaking about the potential sentence, said, isn't this a little over-the-top? How much discretion does a judge have?

SIMERMAN: The judge has very little discretion in terms of the multiple bill, the habitual offender law. When it comes down - if Jacobia Grimes is to be convicted, there's nothing, really, that the judge has discretion over in terms of his sentence at that point. It's really - it's in the hands of the DA.

SHAPIRO: A few years ago, Louisiana earned the title of having a higher incarceration rate than any country in the world. How much is Louisiana's habitual offender law contributing to that?

SIMERMAN: That's a really good question. I don't think anybody has hard statistics on that. There is a task force involving the governor's office, involving a number of appointees of top-level state officials that are just now getting underway at really sort of rooting through what are the real causes of the Louisiana's incarceration rate. So I think it's safe to say that nobody has a firm grip on how much the habitual offender law contributes to that.

SHAPIRO: When you look more broadly at this guy's life, Jacobia Grimes, he seems to have mental health problems - addicted to heroin, from what I understand. Shoplifting does not exist in a vacuum for this man.

SIMERMAN: It doesn't appear to be. His attorneys say that he has a heroin problem. I think it was interesting than a month before he allegedly stole $30 worth of candy, police had put out a missing person bulletin and that bulletin said that he had a medical condition and that he didn't have his medication. So it looks like there's more underneath here that meets the eye.

SHAPIRO: There's obviously more to the justice system than just finances. But given that it costs - what? - some $18,000 a year to lock somebody up in Louisiana, and given that the amount he has stolen has been $30 or so, it does seem a little disproportionate.

SIMERMAN: I think it does - this case raises a good question about who we're putting in prison. He's spent the better part of eight or nine years of the last 15 in jail behind bars for similar thefts, and I think that's what makes this case interesting, is we really have to look at is this what we want out of our justice system?

SHAPIRO: John Simerman is a reporter for The New Orleans Advocate. Thanks for joining us.

SIMERMAN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.