Over retailers’ opposition, Illinois bill to ease retail theft law progresses

An Illinois House committee Tuesday voted to push forward a series of amendments that would remove Illinois from a list of the harshest states in punishing retail theft.

“This is about being smarter in our criminal justice policy,” says Benjamin Ruddell, a criminal justice policy attorney at the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union.

In Illinois defendants convicted of shoplifting $300 worth of goods can be sentenced to as long as five years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines, making it one of only six states that permit so harsh a penalty for the theft of goods worth as little as $500. Illinois defendants convicted of aggravated battery face the same potential sentence.

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The bill moved out of the Judiciary Criminal committee under agreement from the sponsor that the committee will consider an amendment to the bill before it goes to a vote on the House floor.

Cook County prosecutors already had stopped charging felonies in cases that involved the theft of $1,000 or less; the legislation would apply statewide, and raise the threshold even further.

House Bill 1614, which is sponsored by Illinois State Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), would only allow Illinois defendants charged with shoplifting to face a felony if the goods amounted to $2,000 or more in value. The bill would also reduce the penalty enhancement that exists for anyone convicted of shoplifting an amount of any value who also has a prior conviction for a theft-related offense.

Faced with a legislative deadline, the committee voted late Tuesday to approve the bill. But the bill is opposed by a group of retail business associations, and committee members agreed as they passed the bill that they will consider amendments before sending it on to the floor of the House.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told reporters Wednesday morning that changing the standard in Cook County in 2016 to prosecute retail theft as a felony for stolen goods of $1,000 or more in value allowed her office to better allocate resources and better address public safety in Cook County.

Under current law, a defendant with a prior theft conviction automatically would face felony charges for a second offense. The bill would lighten that provision, so that only prior felony theft convictions would automatically require the new offense to be classified as a felony.

The language of the bill exactly reflects the recommendations from a 2017 report commissioned by the bipartisan Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. The Commission was formed under executive order by former Governor Bruce Rauner to evaluate ways to safely reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent by the year 2025.

The Commission estimated that the policy changes which are now outlined in the bill would decrease the inmate population in the Illinois Department of Corrections by 1,100 inmates per year and save the state approximately $37 million per year.

Pew Charitable Trusts 2017

Research done by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2017 shows that even as many states increased their felony retail theft thresholds in the past 20 years, larceny and theft rates have continued to fall. Since 2000, at least 37 states have raised felony theft thresholds, and larceny and theft rates have fallen by more than a third since 1998.

Still, witness slips in opposition to the bill in advance of the hearing were filed by Illinois businesses and business associations.

“We’re against this because we have facilities where people come and rob and steal from us, and if you entice them not to be punished for stealing, for breaking and entering, that doesn’t seem right,” says Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association / Illinois Association of C-Stores.

The opposition does not want the threshold to be raised at all; Ruddell said that while supporters would likely agree to drop the threshold below $2,000, they insist some increase is necessary.

Foxx said her office is at the negotiating table, and that she would like to see a change made to create a uniform standard across the state, though she does not know whether the final language of the bill will set the theft value at $2,000.

Among other opponents of the bill were the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago Loop Alliance.

Across the nation, states who tend to lean both left and right politically have higher felony theft thresholds than Illinois. Both Wisconsin and Texas prosecute retail theft as a felony only for values of $2,500 and above, and Colorado and South Carolina have a threshold of $2,000.

Under the proposed legislation, defendants charged with taking goods below the threshold would face a Class A misdemeanor rather than a felony, with a potential fine of up to $2,500 or up to one year in county jail.

Ruddell said research suggests that shoplifting is closely intertwined with substance use disorders and mental illness. He said money currently spent to imprison those who have committed retail theft offenses of less than $2,000 could be redirected to provide support to those affected by mental illness and substance abuse in the state.

“As we move away from mass incarceration, our laws should not treat what many people would consider felonies as petty crimes,” says Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. Staudt said the policies outlined in the bill are “low hanging fruit” for criminal justice reform in the state.