Florida Brands Petty Thieves as Lifelong Felons, But That Might Change

Florida's $300 felony theft threshold turns petty crimes into prison time. That might change soon.



Two bills advancing through the Florida legislature would raise the state's felony theft threshold—the property value when a theft offense turns from a misdemeanor into a felony—for the first time since 1986.

The bills are a recognition by bipartisan state lawmakers that Florida's $300 felony theft threshold is out of step with much of the rest of the country. Only one state, New Jersey, has a lower threshold

Criminal justice advocates say that low felony theft thresholds like Florida's turn petty crimes into offenses that carry lifelong repercussions.

"The consensus is that the current number is just too low," says Greg Newburn, the state policy director at FAMM, an advocacy group that opposes mandatory minimum sentencing. "So you're getting people who are snatching an iPhone off the counter or something, and then they're felons for the rest of their lives. Not only are they facing prison time, but all the collateral consequences that come with a felony conviction."

That's what almost happened to 18-year-old Frederick Crumbly, a Fort Myers teenager on the autism spectrum who grabbed an iPhone off a counter at a McDonalds. As The Miami Herald detailed, Crumbly's mother barely scraped together enough money for a lawyer, who managed to get Crumbly's charges reduced. Otherwise his felony conviction would have resulted in up to five years in prison, $5,000 in fines, being kicked out of the low-income housing where he lived, and a lifelong label as a felony offender.

Now, one bill in the Florida Senate, SB 7072, would raise the threshold to $750. Another in the House, HB 589, would raise it to $1,000. The legislation comes as Florida lawmakers are trying to get a handle on the state's sprawling and underfunded prison system, a problem both conservative and liberal legislators and groups say can't be ignored any longer without disastrous consequences.

As a result, lawmakers are taking a serious look at Florida's criminal code and comparing it to those in other states that have launched reforms of their justice systems in recent years.

"If you look around the country, Texas's [felony theft threshold] is $2,500, Georgia's is $1,500, and South Carolina's is $2,000," says Florida Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who's worked on several major criminal justice bills. "States around the country have recognized that the felony threshold is a major issue that needs to be addressed, and Florida needs to makes that change as well."

Florida law also includes a punitive provision that makes a third petit theft offense an automatic felony. In other words, a crime that would typically result in a short jail sentence, probation, or fine, instead results in a multi-year stay at a Florida state prison.

There are were 603 Floridians serving prison sentences for petit thefts, according to a February snapshot of the state's prison population provided to Reason by the Florida Department of Corrections.

The average age of those inmates was 45 years old. More than 100 were over 55, and three inmates were 70. Many had long arrest records for the type of offenses that typically accompany chronic homelessness and mental illness.

For example, one 70-year-old inmate, Andrew Sweet, is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for stealing three bags of pistachio nuts and a box of Folgers coffee—worth a total of $44.85—from a Publix. Because of two prior petit theft convictions from 1980 and 1992, the third offense became an automatic felony. His address and occupation were listed on his arrest report as "transient."

A 2017 report by the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit think-tank that publishes Reason, on Florida's felony theft threshold highlighted the case of Latasha Wingster, who was put behind bars for stealing a six-pack of Seagram's wine coolers from a Walmart.

"Because she had been convicted of petty theft on two previous occasions, this crime became a felony offense that carried 5-years maximum in prison, and up to a $5,000 fine," report author Lauren Krisai wrote. "Despite having a low criminal sentencing point score that otherwise would require community supervision over incarceration, and despite noting that her three children would have to enter into the foster care system if she was incarcerated, the only deal the state offered was a two-year prison sentence."

So far the major opposition to raising the threshold has not come from prosecutors or police groups, but from the influential retail lobby, which counts big box chains like Walmart and Home Depot among its members.

Brandes originally proposed raising the threshold to $1,500, but a compromise version passed out of a senate committee lowered that amount to $750. It also includes a provision that allows theft offenses to be aggregated over a 90-day period, meaning the property value for multiple thefts over 90 days would be lumped together. Currently, thefts in Florida can only be aggregated over two days.

James Miller, Florida Retail Federation's senior director of external affairs, says the group supports the Senate bill, but opposes the House version and its higher threshold. Retailers, Miller says, don't care so much about kids like Crumbly but organized retail theft by repeat offenders.

"We're not trying to permanently punish the one-time offender or the kid who makes a youthful indiscretion," Miller says. "We're trying to get the habitual thieves, the ones that are in organized retail crime, the ones that steal and steal again, and that's basically what their job is.

Miller says Walgreens stores in Florida lost $66 million last year from shoplifters.

However, the bills have the support of a wide array of conservative and liberal criminal justice groups which are urging lawmakers not to water down the bills.

"If we're tripling, for all intents and purposes, the felony theft threshold, then we should triple the aggregation time from 48 hours to a week, or worst case scenario, 30 days," Chelsea Murphy, the Florida director at Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice advocacy group, says. "That seems reasonable."

A 2017 Pew report found that 37 states have raised their felony theft thresholds since 2000. It also reported that there was no correlation between the thresholds and property crime; states that increased their thresholds experienced roughly the same average decrease in crime as states that did not.

"The idea that theft over a 90-day period could be combined to find someone guilty of committing a felony simply seems misguided," Raymer Maguire, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida's criminal justice campaign, told The Miami Herald. "A lot of this comes from the retail federation which likes to … scare legislators into sticking with the 'tough on crime' mentality that has not reduced crime across our state but has led to mass incarceration."