Accused New Orleans candy swiper facing 20-year prison term is jailed after failed drug test _lowres

Jacobia Grimes

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The price of candy has shot way up for Jacobia Grimes.

A career shoplifter, Grimes faces a possible 20 years to life in prison after he allegedly stuffed $31 worth of candy bars into his pockets at a Dollar General store on South Claiborne Avenue on a December afternoon.

A manager at the store spotted the 34-year-old swiping the merchandise about 2:30 p.m. Dec. 9, and Grimes unloaded his pockets before his arrest, according to a police report.

On Feb. 3, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office chose to charge Grimes under a statute that boosts the alleged candy theft to a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The statute applies to people who have been convicted of “theft of goods” at least twice before.

Grimes has five prior theft convictions, making him a “quad” offender under the state’s habitual-offender law, and facing 20 years to life behind bars.

In 2010, Cannizzaro’s office secured a conviction against Grimes as a double offender, sending him away on a four-year prison stint. The latest charge upped the stakes further.

Grimes appeared Thursday for arraignment before Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, pleading not guilty.

“Isn’t this a little over the top?” Zibilich wondered aloud over the threat of a “multiple bill,” an approach that leaves little discretion to a judge.

“It’s not even funny,” the judge said. “Twenty years to life for a Snickers bar, or two or three or four.”

The case appears to be an extreme example of a common practice in a state with one of the stiffer habitual-offender laws in the country, according to reform advocates.

Cannizzaro’s office, for one, often takes advantage of such charging decisions to ratchet up the possible consequences for criminal defendants, sometimes as leverage to elicit guilty pleas.

Just how much the state’s habitual-offender laws contribute to Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration rate is uncertain. That is one of the concerns to be addressed by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which the Legislature formed last year to launch an intensive, data-driven review of state sentencing and corrections policies.

That body — to include appointees of the governor, the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, leaders of both legislative houses, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and others — is slated to get rolling in June.

Kevin Kane, of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank that focuses on criminal justice reform in the state, said cases like Grimes’ point to the need for a thorough review.

“It’s obviously an example of some of the situations that you inevitably end up seeing when you have some of these habitual-offender laws,” Kane said. “There’s no perfect solution. We always face this dilemma: Do you make sentences very flexible and run the risk of people who have done something bad not getting tough enough sentences, or do you make them very rigid?”

Kane said Louisiana is among the states with the most rigid sentencing laws in the country.

“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,” he said. “When you cast this wide a net, you end up pulling in people who really don’t pose a threat.”

Grimes’ attorneys, Miles Swanson and Michael Kennedy, said his prior guilty pleas — from 2001 to 2010 — were for similar shoplifting attempts.

Details of Grimes’ prior heists were not immediately available from court records, but Swanson said the victims in those cases were Rite-Aid, Sav-A-Center, Blockbuster Video and Rouses stores.

All involved thefts of less than $500 worth of items. In the last one for which Grimes pleaded guilty — accepting a four-year sentence in 2010 as a double offender — he relieved a Dollar General of some socks and trousers, Swanson said.

He said Grimes could have been charged with a state misdemeanor under a different statute.

“I just think it points to the absurdity of the multiple billing statute. They’re spending their time to lock someone up for years over $31 worth of candy. It’s ridiculous,” Swanson said.

Grimes also has convictions for possession with intent to sell fake drugs and obscenity, a crime committed while he was behind bars.

Since March 2001, he has spent a total of nearly nine years in state prisons, mostly for shoplifting: first a year, then 18 months, then three years and finally a little over three years ending in 2013, according to state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde.

According to the state agency, prisoners cost the state an average of $18,800 per year.

Laborde said Grimes was released to parole supervision in August 2013 and freed from that supervision in February 2014.

He steered clear of trouble for two years before walking into the Dollar General.

Kennedy, Grimes’ other attorney, said he has a ninth-grade education and a heroin problem.

“It’s unconscionably excessive to threaten someone with 20 years to life for candy,” Kennedy said, adding that it’s a result of legislation.

“The DA is following the law as it’s written,” he said. “The DA certainly had a choice. I may not agree with the choice they made, but they didn’t do anything improper.”

Christopher Bowman, the spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment on the specifics of Grimes’ case, citing office policy.

“It’s a felony offense,” Bowman said of Grimes’ alleged crime. “The state of Louisiana has defined it as a felony.”

Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group advocating for criminal justice reform in Louisiana and several other states, said the case points to a need for more robust re-entry, mentorship and rehabilitation programs.

“It’s so tragic. Clearly there’s something deeper that’s wrong here,” Harris said. “Let’s be honest here. These are petty crimes. There’s no rhyme or reason for somebody stealing $30 worth of candy bars. It’s the same cycle of failure.”

The police report does not say what type of candy Grimes is accused of stealing.

A month before the candy theft, the NOPD had put out a missing-person bulletin for Grimes. It said he’d last been seen three days earlier leaving his girlfriend’s house on a bicycle and “possibly heading to a store located at Gen. Taylor and South Claiborne Avenue,” three blocks from the Dollar General where he is accused of taking the candy. The bulletin said Grimes “suffers from a medical condition and is in need of his medication.”

Grimes, who also faces a charge of drug paraphernalia possession, is free on $5,000 bond, court records show.

He is next due in court on Wednesday. He has elected to forgo a jury in favor of a judge trial.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.