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Tallahassee wants more and more laws to keep people out of prison

A bill to relax Florida’s felony theft law is part of a trend.
Published Jan. 19, 2018|Updated Jan. 19, 2018

So far this session, legislators have already introduced four bills that would significantly reduce the prison population, according to state analysts.

It’s part of a big swing away from tougher-on-crime policies favored in the early 2000s.

The Criminal Justice Impact Conference, comprising officials from both legislative chambers, the governor’s office and the Office of Economic & Demographic Research, evaluates how bills would change the number of people in Florida’s prisons.

If a proposed law would convert a misdemeanor into a felony, for example, the prison population would grow. A law expanding parole would make it shrink.

Bills that analysts are confident would cause increases or decreases of at least 25 people, if not hundreds and thousands, are deemed to have a “significant” impact.

In the late 2000s, bills that were filed would put more people behind bars the next year far outnumbered bills that would reduce the population.

Things have changed. Now, proposed laws that encourage early release, shorten sentences or classify more crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies are much more common.

Florida bills projected to significantly increase or decrease the prison population

Bills evaluated by the Florida Criminal Justice Impact Conference as “significant positive” or “significant negative” impacts on the prison population in the next fiscal year. “Significant” means a change of at least 25 prison beds. Conference member Matthew Hasbrouck expects more bills to be introduced and evaluated before the 2018 session is over.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the trend means legislators are “becoming smarter.”

“We’re not excusing criminal activity. We’re looking at the impact to community and the economy by not trying to lock everybody up.”

Democrats have been joined by some libertarian conservatives who think a high prison population is costly and ineffective. Florida’s inmate population has held steady at about 100,000 since 2012.

Some Republicans expressed hope for bipartisan cooperation on the issue at an event Tuesday presenting a criminal justice reform report financed by the Charles Koch Institute.

A prison-population-cutting bill this session is SB 928, sponsored by Rouson and fellow Democrat Randolph Bracy of Orlando, which would relax Florida’s strict felony theft law.

Stealing $300 worth of property can send a person to prison now, a threshold that’s been in place since 1986. Florida’s $300 limit is harsh compared to most of the country. Most states are over $1,000 and have raised their .felony theft thresholds at least once since 2000.

Rouson and Bracy’s bill would raise Florida from $300 to $1,500 and make several other changes that would relax penalties for theft.

Supporters argue the bill recognizes inflation and would avoid giving costly prison sentences for stealing something as common as a cell phone.

Currently, stealing less than $100 worth of property is a second degree misdemeanor, while stealing $100 to less than $300 is a first-degree misdemeanor. The bill would change a second degree misdemeanor to theft of less than $500. A first degree misdemeanor would be $500 to $1,500.

Further, the bill would limit minors from some penalties. And lawmakers would relax a three-strikes provision that upgrades any theft after two petty theft convictions to a felony.

The proposed threshold goes far beyond inflation; $300 in 1986 would be about $670 now. Rouson said it’s a recognition that people carry hundreds of dollars worth in technology on them now, and avoids putting first-time thieves in state prison.

“This is not an encouragement to steal,” Rouson said. “But you just can’t start off with the ultimate life conviction — felony — every time something is taken.”

It’s unclear how many fewer people would go to prison under the proposed rules. Matthew Hasbrouck, an economist with the state’s Criminal Justice Impact Conference, said in fiscal year 16-17, just more than 1,000 Floridians received prison sentences for grand theft of less than $5,000.

Some of them inevitably stole property less than $1,500 or were penalized under the three-strike rule that would be changed, but it’s not clear how many. Still, the officials projected the bill would “significantly” reduce the prison population.

A 2017 Pew Charitable Trusts study found that people don’t steal more when the threshold is raised. Property crime is down over the past two decades overall, and such changes haven’t made a difference in states, according to the report.

Still, the new dollar figure gave Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri pause. Gualtieri said he understands the reasons to adjust the law. Fifteen years ago, he pointed out, stealing a flip phone would be just a misdemeanor. Now, it can send you to prison. Pinellas is at the forefront of agencies using policies that keep kids out of jail for low-level crimes.

But he thought the new bar should be lower than $1,500. That’s a lot, he said, to take from a home or small business with little consequence.

“It sends the wrong message, the wrong signal,” he said.

Gualtieri thought part of the bill was just “rhetoric.”

“There’s an easy solution to this problem. Don’t steal people’s stuff.”


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