Lawmakers aim to lower prison costs by locking up fewer nonviolent offenders

Approximately $66M of taxpayer money spent each year on prison costs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s prison budget is more than $2 billion a year, but lawmakers said prison costs can be cut by locking up fewer nonviolent offenders.

Since 2003, seven states have raised their felony theft threshold. Florida’s neighboring states, Georgia and Alabama, both have $1,500 thresholds. 

There are approximately 3,300 people behind bars in Florida for felony theft convictions. Each costs taxpayers more than $20,000 year.

Part of the reason for the high numbers is Florida’s low threshold for a theft to qualify as a felony. Stealing an item valued at $300 or more triggers a felony charge.

“As a person gets a felony record, you know even when they’re 18 or 19 or 20 years old, it carries with them all throughout their lives,” Sal Nuzzo, with James Madison Institute, said.

“You can still be convicted of a misdemeanor, serve a year in jail and (receive) a $5,000 fine,” Chealsea Murphy of Right on Crime said.

The limit that was set to $300 is now worth $683. The Florida Smart Justice Alliance said the proposed $1,500 threshold is too high.

“If you’re the person that somebody broke into your home and they stole $1,500 of your jewelry, you’re not going to appreciate the fact that it’s still a misdemeanor,” Barney Bishop, with Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said.

Retailers worry increasing the felony theft threshold will result in crooks stealing more.

“That’s costing jobs," Melissa Ramba, with Florida Retail Federation, said. "That’s costing resources.”

The bill cleared a Senate committee alongside another proposal. The second would make it harder for nonviolent offenders to be sent to jail. The sponsor of both, Sen. Randolph Bracy, said the two combined will make a dent in correctional costs.

“I think it will help us focus our efforts on serious criminals,” Bracy said.

How much taxpayers will save is a moving target, but the $3,300 in prison for felony theft costs the state $66 million a year.