Should someone who steals two or three pairs of sneakers serve the same prison sentence as someone who beats a person savagely?
Clearly, one crime is more heinous. But in the eyes of the law in Illinois, they look a lot the same.
Shoplifting goods worth more than $300 in Illinois is a Class 3 felony, punishable by two to five years in prison, the same as aggravated battery that causes great bodily harm, disability or disfigurement.
There is no doubt that shoplifting is criminal activity. It drains stores of billions of dollars each year, and those losses are passed on to consumers. But an adage applies: Punishment must fit the crime.
Setting the threshold for a felony at $300 brings on penalties that are too severe for the crime. Illinois should raise that threshold, a step the Legislature is considering.
Rep. Elgie Sims Jr. of Chicago has proposed a bill to raise the bar for felony retail theft and general property theft to $2,000. Theft under $2,000 would be a misdemeanor. Rep. Justin Slaughter, also of Chicago, has introduced a bill that would raise the felony minimum to $2,500.
Whether the threshold should be raised that high is debatable, but $300 is much too low.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx gets it. She has made a practical decision to raise the felony threshold to $1,000, although prosecutors still have discretion to upgrade misdemeanor charges to felonies depending on the circumstances. Cook County has a sorry history of low-level offenders sitting in jail for months — for longer than their eventual prison sentences — because they can’t afford low bail.
Sims’ bill echoes recommendations made by the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing in December. The commission called for raising the felony threshold to $2,000 for shoplifting and general property theft.
“Theft of all types is a serious problem, but treating those who steal relatively small amounts (a single laptop or smartphone, for example) the same as those who steal on a large scale seems disproportionate and does not make the best use of prison resources,” the commission said in its report.
The commission, created by Gov. Bruce Rauner, also suggested Illinois ease up on low-level repeat offenders. Currently, a misdemeanor can be upgraded to a felony if someone has been convicted for stealing anything in the past.
“Status as a felon and possible imprisonment is not an appropriate sanction for a person who repeatedly steals low-value items, nor is this a prudent use of prison resources,” the report said.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association is leading a charge against changes to the shoplifting law. It cites a rise nationally in shoplifting over the last five years as a reason to keep the felony threshold at $300.
But there is a serious societal cost to imprisoning low-level, non-violent shoplifters and branding them felons. Felonies stay with ex-convicts for life. Job searches are crippled. There really is no clean slate.
There is a steep cost to taxpayers, as well, who pay for those prisons. Rauner’s commission noted that when it began its work, in early 2015, Illinois prisons were operating at 150 percent of design capacity. Illinois’ incarceration rate had increased more than 500 percent in the last 40 years.
Small-time shoplifters don’t belong in that crowd.Tweets by @csteditorials