Florida's Big-Retail Lobby Says It Will Keep Fighting to Imprison More Petty Thieves

If you steal anything worth $300 or more in Florida, that counts as a felony. That is, to be blunt, an absurdly low number in 2019: It's the second-lowest felony theft threshold in America (behind New Jersey), and Florida has not updated that number since 1987. Adjusted for inflation, $300...
The Florida Retail Federation represents companies including Target.
The Florida Retail Federation represents companies including Target. Photo by Phillip Pessar / Flickr
Share this:
If you steal anything worth $300 or more in Florida, you can be convicted of a felony, lose your voting rights, and go to jail for quite a while. That is an absurdly low amount in 2019. It's the second-lowest felony theft threshold in America, behind New Jersey.  Florida hasn't updated the number since 1987. Adjusted for inflation, what was worth $300 in 1987 costs $647 today. You can be imprisoned for five years because you tried to walk out of a big-box store with a cell phone or five PlayStation games.

Justice-reform advocates on the left and right have been trying to raise that threshold for years, but one massively powerful lobbying group has stood in the way: the Florida Retail Federation, the largest big-retail-business lobbying group in the state. The Federation, which represents Target, Walmart, Publix, Walgreens, Lowe's, Walt Disney World, Best Buy, and virtually every other major retail chain in Florida, has long lobbied to keep the theft-threshold as low as it is — despite the fact shoplifting rates haven't increased in the 48 other states where the felony minimum is higher.

And now, with two different bills filed for the 2019 legislative session to raise the threshold, the Federation has told New Times it will lobby against them. One of the bills would raise the level to $1,000, the other to $1,500. While many other states have similar felony minimums — some have set thresholds as high as $2,500 — a lobbyist with the group, James Miller, said via email last week that the Federation believes these numbers are too high.

"We have concerns about the felony threshold bill you mentioned, specifically that the bill proposes to increase the threshold by an astonishing 500 percent," he wrote.

Last year, the Federation openly boasted of its efforts to kill criminal-justice reform at the state level. Via email, Miller claimed the group was trying to fight organized retail-theft rings, not just petty thieves.

"Our past opposition to increases were painted as Draconian, however our reasons for opposing were over concerns of softening the penalties specifically for Organized Retail Crime," he wrote. "Professional shoplifting and ORC rings cost the retail industry $30 billion each year, while state and local governments lose an estimated $1.6 billion in annual sales tax revenue. In fact, shoplifters are caught an average of only once every 48 times they steal."

He added that the Federation's "goal is not to punish or permanently harm first-time offenders or youth by branding them as felons for one unfortunate indiscretion. However, we also believe that the law should deter retail theft and that prosecutors should have discretion to appropriately punish those who exploit the law. We are very sympathetic to the limited resources available to law enforcement, and we want to work with them on prosecuting the professionals without permanently harming those who made a mistake."

The Federation bragged last year about fighting to kill a bill that would have raised the threshold to $1,500. The organization's president, Scott Shalley, told Florida Politics the Federation intentionally fought to keep the felony limit unchanged in order to "deter theft." Under current law, the theft penalties and thresholds are the same for both petty shoplifters and gangs of thieves.

"Keeping the threshold at its current limit of $300 will help to protect retail by deterring theft, discouraging criminals from stealing larger amounts of merchandise, and reducing the impact of organized retail crime,” he told the news outlet.

The Federation still states on its website that it successfully kept the limit as low as possible last year. The group wrote the following as part of a 2018 legislative-session wrapup:

We are also excited to share the news that FRF was able to keep the felony threshold at its current limit of $300. This will deter retail theft and organized retail crime and help protect our smaller businesses. FRF fought all session to not give criminals a cost of living increase on the backs of retailers.
(This is not the only time the Federation has fought laws that would help the state's low-income population: In 2016, the group teamed with Gov. Rick Scott and sued the City of Miami Beach when the town attempted to raise its minimum wage to $13.31 per hour. Municipalities are banned from setting their own wages under state law.)

Importantly, history overwhelmingly shows that harsh theft limits do little or nothing to "deter" crime. The Pew Research Center has found theft rates decreased in the 30 states that raised their thresholds after the year 2000. In 2010, South Carolina even raised its theft-threshold to $2,000 — and the new law did not "encourage" thieves to steal more, Pew found. But the law did have an important impact elsewhere — it reduced prison time for low-level thieves.

"South Carolina policymakers intended the higher threshold to divert people convicted of lower-level offenses away from prison, so Pew also investigated the impact of the change on the state’s prison population," Pew wrote last year. "The study determined that prison admissions for theft offenses declined by 15 percent, and sentence lengths fell a similarly significant 13.6 percent, or 231 days."

Via email, Miller disputed this data: He said that, while retail chains that support his group did report fewer thefts, the stores felt that thieves were targeting more expensive goods:

Our main focus is strictly on the repeat offenders and those involved in organized retail crime and not the one-time offenders. Yes, we’re aware of the Pew report that threshold supporters like to refer to. However, our member retailers who have stores in other states where the threshold was raised, have told us consistently that even though the number of thefts may have decreased in some states, the amount of the merchandise stolen increased significantly. In fact, our members have surveilled shoplifters using calculators in the store prior to a theft to ensure the price of the items they were planning to shoplift collectively fall under the felony threshold limit. Keeping the value of a single “haul” under that limit means they are quickly back on the street instead of in jail. This shows that ORC criminals understand the new threshold and have increased thefts to meet it. And the 2018 NRF Organized Retail Crime Survey reinforces what we’re hearing from our members on this issue. Make no mistake about it, those who partake in organized retail crime know and understand the ramifications of these thresholds. Clearly, these are not misguided one-time thieves. And they are the ones we are focusing on, not the first-time offenders. By increasing the threshold, you’re increasing the value of items stolen and the more valuable the item, the more value it has on the street in supporting other crimes like I mentioned previously.

But, last year, justice-reform advocates last year were furious with the Federation for taking a demonstrably anti-science stance on theft limits. "This is just about modernizing our criminal justice system and not wasting unnecessary resources incarcerating people,"  Deborrah Brodsky, the director of Florida State University's Project on Accountable Justice, said last year. "This is something the rest of the country has moved on from. We’re an outlier here. And it's one of the places you can clearly point to the evidence and show that the status quo is not working."
KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.