Jacobia Grimes has a history of petty theft. Having previously been arrested five times for small-time robberies (and several other times for other low-level crimes), Grimes certainly had to expect that he would be facing some sort of punishment when he was caught stealing $31 in candy bars from a Dollar General store in Louisiana last December.
But 20 years to life in prison?
“Isn’t this a little over the top?” Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich wondered aloud at Grimes’ arraignment hearing. “It’s not even funny—20 years to life for a Snickers bar, or two or three or four.”
Zibilich is not afforded much latitude in sentencing. Despite the fact that all of Grimes’ previous arrests for theft were for amounts less than $500, Louisiana’s habitual offender law, one of the strictest in the nation, requires severe punishment.
“More and more people are coming to the realization that as we amped up sentences over the past 20-30 years, this is something we should revisit,” Kevin Kane, president of the libertarian Pelican Institute for Public Policy, says in an interview with The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge. “When you cast this wide a net, you end up pulling in people who really don’t pose a threat.”
Even Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro recognizes the need for change. While objecting to some of the assertions the original Advocate story and stating that “shoplifters will not be doing 20-year sentences” in Louisiana, he says, “Until the city is willing to fund real rehabilitative programming and until the courts are willing to strictly mandate that probationers partake in said programming, the community will continue to be victimized again and again by this cycle of recidivism.”
An effective approach to criminal justice not only attempts to ensure that the punishment for crime is proportionate, but also seeks to involve both the wronged parties and those who have committed crime in restoration, and works to prevent future crimes from being committed. By promoting alternatives to incarceration for men and women who pose no threat to those around them, and offering treatment and counseling for those who need it, the criminal justice system can be made more efficient and more effective.
Prison Fellowship promotes a criminal justice system that is both just and restorative. To learn more about our efforts, and to see how you can get involved, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/advocacy.