This week, Jacobia Grimes was charged with stealing $31 worth of candy and is facing 20 years in prison for the infraction. This excessive sentence is a product of Louisiana’s notoriously harsh habitual offender law, one of its many mandatory minimum sentencing schemes. In Grimes’ case, he has three prior nonviolent felonies on his record, bumping his would-be misdemeanor charge to a felony and making him eligible for a discretionary 20-year life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Currently, the Louisiana law requires habitual offenders to be sentenced as follows:
- The second felony conviction must be sentenced to a minimum penalty of half the maximum sentence applicable for a first offender and the maximum penalty is double the maximum sentence applicable to a first time offender.
- For a third felony conviction, the minimum penalty is 2/3 of that applicable to a first time offender. Important to note, however, is that if the last felony conviction and two prior felonies are violent convictions, sex crimes, or drug crimes the sentence for the third felony conviction is life without parole.
- For a fourth felony conviction of ANY offense, the offender faces mandatory life in prison.
Laws like this have helped Louisiana accumulate the highest incarceration rate in the United States, and the world. In 2014, Louisiana incarcerated 816 per 100,000 people, more than double the United States average (392) and 17% higher than Oklahoma (700), which has the second highest incarceration rate in the US.
Unfortunately, cases like Grimes’ are not uncommon in Louisiana. Paul Carter was convicted of possessing an amount of heroin so small it was not measurable and sentenced to life without parole. Timothy Jackson is serving life without parole for stealing a jacket worth $159. He was charged as a fourth-strike offender because of a simple robbery charge when he was 17 and two simple car-burglaries at age 17 and 24. Even the judge in Jackson’s case described the mandatory sentence as “excessive,” stating that his sentence “is constitutionally excessive in that it is grossly out of proportion to the seriousness of the offense.” His case and others exemplify just how draconian punishment in Louisiana can be, and how these mandatory minimum sentencing schemes tie the hands of judges who would otherwise choose a more appropriate sentence.
Recommendations for improvement
In addition to having the highest incarceration rate in the country, Louisiana leads the world when it comes to the number of inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses, largely as a result of its harsh habitual offender law. Louisiana legislators should consider eliminating this law, or at least limiting its application to violent offenders only.
It’s no secret that Louisiana has been slow to reform its harsh sentencing laws, despite the fact that many of its neighboring conservative states have begun to do so. In 2015 alone, 12 states passed laws aimed at reducing their incarcerated population. Many states that have reduced their prison populations have seen reductions in violent crime, which shows that both can be achieved simultaneously.
Eliminating or significantly reducing mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders would dramatically cut the costs of incarceration while maintaining public safety. In 2012 (most recent data available), 97.6 percent of nonviolent life sentences were mandatory. If the state eliminated life without parole for its nonviolent inmates, ACLU estimates a cost savings of $180 million in total. If eliminating mandatory sentencing isn’t viable for Louisiana, they can pass safety valve legislation that allows judges to sentence beneath mandatory minimums in certain cases. Doing this would be less desirable than eliminating the statute all together, since it allows the state to keep its “tough on crime” laws, but allowing judicial discretion for situations where it’s warranted would represent a significant improvement from the status quo.
Until Louisiana legislators take assertive steps to address its harsh sentencing laws, people like Timothy Jackson, Paul Carter, and Stanley Carnell Veal will continue to spend their lives paying for poor policy, and others like Jacobia Grimes will continue to face the prospect of decades in prison for petty crimes. Whether Louisiana repeals its habitual offender law all together or simply scales back its application, the time for reform is now.