Florida's Big Business Lobby Brags About Killing Effort to Charge Fewer Petty Criminals With Felonies

The Florida Retail Federation represents companies including Target.
The Florida Retail Federation represents companies including Target. Photo by Phillip Pessar / Flickr
Florida charges way too many people with felony theft for a simple reason: Under state law, anytime someone steals something worth at least $300, it qualifies as "grand theft." That threshold is among the lowest in America. Florida has not raised that amount since 1986 despite the fact that the U.S. dollar has undergone inflation in those 32 years and other states have raised their limits to as much as $2,500 to qualify as a felony.

So why can't the Sunshine State fix its statute to reflect the modern value of the dollar? Today offered a vivid reminder when the Florida Retail Federation (FRF), the largest lobbying group for major retail corporations in the state, bragged about killing a measure seeking to prevent more petty thieves from going to prison by raising the felony theft standard.

The federation represents the interests of the nation's largest corporations, including Walmart, Target, CVS, the Walt Disney Company, Walgreens, the Home Depot, Lowe's, Hard Rock, and Office Depot. Today the group's CEO, F. Scott Shalley, told Florida Politics that one of the organization's "biggest successes" in 2018 was lobbying to kill a bipartisan measure that would have raised the theft threshold to $1,500.

“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,” Shalley told the site. (Reached by phone, the federation said Shalley was not available to speak today. The organization's spokesperson did not respond to a message.)

The quote has enraged Florida's criminal-justice-reform advocates, who span the ideological spectrum. They say the FRF's "deterrence" argument is bunk because there haven't been spikes in thefts in states that have raised the felony theft limit.

"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, tells New Times. "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."

Brodsky says these types of felony-theft laws tend to come down harshest on young people, who often make stupid decisions and try to, say, walk out of a Target with a few Apple Watches shoved into their shorts. She noted that in 1986, a typical retail store contained way fewer items that cost more than $300. Today you can theoretically get caught stealing one iPhone or five Xbox games and wind up charged with grand theft.

"Think about it this way: If I had stolen $300 in 1986 if I was a senior in high school, that's a very different thing than stealing $300 in 2018," Brodsky says. "Nowadays, $300 is really easy to steal. A lot of the shiny things that are attractive to children cost that much."

Also, researchers for the Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2012 that harsh punishments for theft don't lead to reductions in crime. Instead, theft remains relatively constant, but offenders in some states wind up getting thrown in prison for far longer periods of time, losing their voting rights, and, perhaps most important when it comes to theft reduction, losing the ability to get hired and make a living once they're released. Because a person's economic status greatly predicts whether he or she might steal in the future, stripping someone of future job prospects basically encourages that person to steal again.

It's worth noting that even a ton of Republicans agree here: The James Madison Institute, a libertarian think tank, fought hard in favor of Florida Sen. Randolph Bracy's bill, SB 928.
So it's fair to call the FRF's lobbying what it clearly is: a group of powerful, oligarchic corporations standing on the necks of local politicians to force them to continue ruining the lives of petty thieves in order to please executives at Target.

FSU's Brodsky put things in slightly tamer terms.

"In terms of a rational policy change for Florida, this seems to be a no-brainer," she says. "We're just stalled by the status quo. We’re moving mountains in terms of how Floridians feel about this, so it’s a disappointment that the taxpayers of Florida want something but they're not getting it."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.