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Bill would raise the monetary threshold for a felony charge

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Bill would raise the monetary threshold for a felony charge

Senior Editor

The Florida Senate is wasting little time in its effort to reform decades-old, get-tough-on-crime policies that critics say have led to mass incarceration with little or no benefit.

Only a few hours after opening ceremonies for the 2018 session, the Criminal Justice Committee voted 4-2 to raise the monetary threshold for felony grand theft from $300 to $1,500.

If it became law, the move would mark the first time the grand theft threshold was adjusted upward in Florida in 32 years.

Chair Randolph Bracy The measure, SB 928, is being sponsored by the committee Chair Randolph Bracy of Ocoee, and Sen. Daryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, both Democrats.

The vote came quickly with little or no debate after the committee plowed through a long agenda. Sen. Denise Grimsley of Lake Placid and Sen. Aaron Bean of Jacksonville, both Republicans, were opposed.

But Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, said he was only supporting the reform so it could be weakened at the next committee stop.

“I would say I’m not happy with the numbers on there,” Baxley said. “I really don’t want a cost of living adjustment for theft, but I understand the issue.”

The bill would also remove several items of property that get special protection under Florida law. If the bill passes, theft of a fire extinguisher, stop sign, construction site property, and anhydrous ammonia, among others, would no longer be an automatic felony.

A staff analysis estimates there are 3,300 people locked up in Florida prisons for felony theft convictions and 21,000 under community supervision for similar crimes.

The same study shows that only four other states besides Florida have monetary thresholds of $500 or less for grand theft.

At least 26 states have increased the monetary value threshold in the last 14 years, and nine states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, raised it twice between 2003 and 2015, according to the analysis.

The move was supported by several reform-minded groups, including the Florida Public Defender Association, and the conservative-leaning Florida Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The Florida Retail Federation registered its opposition, but its lobbyist declined to address the committee.

Bracy’s bill has two more committee stops in the Senate, Judiciary and Rules, before reaching the floor. A House companion, HB 713, by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, cleared its first committee last month and faces two more before reaching the House floor.

Also on the opening day of session, and by the same 4-2 vote, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved another Bracy measure, SB 238, that would make it easier for sick and elderly inmates to obtain, “conditional medical release” from prison.

It’s a reflection, supporters said, of Florida’s rapidly aging prison population and the skyrocketing costs associated with it.

This winter, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved bi-partisan measures to create “judicial safety valves.” The measures would allow judges to depart from harsh, minimum-mandatory sentences for drug trafficking if the defendant was nonviolent and did not use a weapon.

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