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."

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  1. “Only one state, New Jersey, has a lower threshold”

    Well, Florida certainly does NOT want to be imitating New Jersey!

    On the other hand, $750 still makes grabbing an iphone a felony – – – –

    1. “On the other hand, $750 still makes grabbing an iphone a felony – – – -”

      Good. No one has the right to take someone else’s property. Maybe if the penalty were far more severe we’d have less of it.

      1. And then the taxpayers pay out the nose to lock him up, and the taxpayers make up for his future taxes because he can’t get a decent job.

        I have no problem with locking up habitual irredeemable career criminals, but a single iPhone should not be a felony.

        1. Having been the victim of thieves many times (literally tens of thousands of dollars in my property stolen), I have no sympathy. Maybe we can cut off their hand instead of sending them to jail.

          1. Can you not differentiate between a one-time iPhone thief vs a professional burglar?

          2. You are mad you were stolen from, so you want to mutilate people.

            Who is the real criminal here?

            You are.

        2. So what should?

          An iPhone can cost over a grand. I ain’t dying on the “1k shouldn’t be a felony” hill.

          “And then the taxpayers pay out the nose to lock him up, and the taxpayers make up for his future taxes because he can’t get a decent job.”

          Those aren’t problems with the threshold my man.

        3. “the taxpayers make up for his future taxes ”

          What kind of prog-ass argument is this?

          1. It’s a reality-based argument. People with felony convictions don’t get jobs as readily. When those felony convictions are deserved, as with habitual irredeemable career criminals, that’s fine with me. When it’s for swiping a phone, how has society benefited?

      2. Yeah, that’ll work. Time was, people could be hanged for petty theft. Yet pickpockets still worked the crowds at hangings.

        1. But the ones being hanged never stole again.

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  2. Here’s a thought, don’t take stuff that ain’t yours.

    1. I literally can’t comprehend the rationale of thieves. I don’t want someone else’s things. It’s far more satisfying and rewarding to earn the money and buy it yourself. But then some piece of garbage comes along and just takes it away–and the cops do nothing. Scum.

      1. You can’t comprehend at all why someone would want something, and they’d like to get it easily? That’s pretty easy to comprehend while still condemning it.

        1. When I was about 7 I stole a hearing aid battery from Radio Shack. I thought it was cool because it looked like a metal pill. But every time I looked at it I was reminded of what I did. So I threw it away and haven’t stolen anything since.

          1. Maybe we should have chopped off your hand.

      2. I have had my bike stolen multiple times.

        Thieves piss me off too.

        I am not going to advocate for cutting people’s hands over it though.

        You need to get a grip.

  3. I say cut off their hands!

    Look, I hate being robbed too. I still hope for the day someone tells me who stole over 1000 of my cds, an FM2 Nikon camera and a pair of Armani sunglasses from me in 1994. And absolutely thieves should be held accountable.

    However, the problem with ‘one size’ laws is it doesn’t consider something we’re learning more and more about: Autism and mental illness. Call me a bleeding heart liberal (which I’m not) but in these specific cases throwing people like that in jail is pointless.

    1. Bleeding heart liberaltarian.

    2. pair of Armani sunglasses from me in 1994.

      Please tell us you had a white suit.

      1. No white suit.

        Charcoal. And 14 other. My father was a tailor.

  4. $750 is a felony but vote to take someone’s money by point of gun is totally acceptable because reasons.

    1. Voting makes everything ok. Except Brexit, of course.

  5. The Seventh amendment sets a $20 threshold for the right to jury trial in civil cases. Adjusted for inflation, $656.

    OTOH, $20 wasn’t chosen at random, that represented, IIRC, one ounce of gold. $1,293 today.

    On the third hand, $20 at the time represented about 3 months of average per capita income. About $13,400 today.

    Any of the above is a defensible number for the threshold of felonies, from an originalist standpoint. But I’d lean towards the last, given how severe felony penalties can be.

    1. It is interesting that the cost of gold, in terms of the amount of time it takes a person to earn enough money to buy an ounce of it, has really come down.

    2. Similarly, the $300 threshold is equivalent to about 691 dollars today, adjusted for inflation

      Of course one can rightly say the likelihood of someone have a 700 dollar item in their pocket is much higher today, than having a 300 dollar item in 1986. So having someone empty their pockets will cost them a lot more today than 30 years ago

      Its a tricky subject, 700 dollars is a lot of cash to have on you, but I easily have 5 grand worth of electronics on me at most times (personal laptop, work laptop, personal cell phone, work cell phone, often a tablet as well)

      Hell even my car key would cost nearly 300 dollars to replace if it was stolen (just the key)

  6. Next up for Florida felons: Having the state brand a “CF” on their foreheads for convicted felons.

  7. Here is an idea. If the retail federation wants to keep the threshold lower, make THEM pay the FULL COST of incarcerating people who would be felons under the lower threshold but not felons under the higher threshold.

    When it is taxpayer dollars that are being wasted, it is easy to advocate for longer sentences. But when it is your own money, then people start to ask whether it is really worth it.

    Walgreens losing $66 million from shoplifters/shrinkage really sucks. It raises costs, by a little, for everyone. But we need to approach this problem, like all problems, in a balanced way.

  8. Lose you second amendment right for life over a $300 non violent crime. That’s one bullshit gun control law.

    Here’s an idea- attach the repeal of a few bullshit gun laws to every new gun law the left proposes and see if they will vote for a ‘common sense’ gun law.

    If they will not compromise (and they won’t) don’t give them anything.

    1. I’ve been saying this for a while. For example, universal background checks = repeal interstate transfer restrictions (they were put in place to preserve state-level background check laws anyway, so they became essentially moot with the Brady Bill)

      1. Pass a background check = qualify for conceal carry reciprocity.

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  10. A long sentence for shoplifting a $10 item makes sense when it’s part of a long pattern of criminal behavior. The kid that shoplifts once might learn to respect other people’s property. Someone who has served two sentences for petty theft, and now gets caught again, is a parasite who will never respect others property. The only question is whether locking him up for life will prevent enough crimes to be worth the cost of imprisonment; remember that the costs of his crimes include all the thefts he wasn’t caught for and the weakening of the social fabric when people find that the cops are ineffective.

    The person who stole thousands of dollars worth of stuff over the last 3 months, a few dollars at a time, is now a professional thief and is most likely to be a lifelong thief, like the 3-time loser I described above. So aggregating the thefts over 3 months makes sense to me. It distinguishes the kid who falls to temptation once from career criminals.

    The other thing I want to see in exchange for raising the felony threshold is sentencing based on the total damages, not just the value of items stolen. Shoplifting a $10 package of steak is a minor crime. Breaking down a door and causing $1000 of damage to reach that $10 item is a more significant crime. Worst of all are the metal thieves, who do tens of thousands worth of damages to get a few dollars worth of scrap metal. There’s a name for someone who gives no thought at all to what his actions cost his victims: sociopath.

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