(The Center Square) – Before adjourning the legislative session last month, lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly sent a bill to Gov. Glenn Youngkin that would crack down on groups who commit organized retail theft.
Two identical bills in the House and Senate would make it a Class 3 felony, punishable by 5 to 20 years in prison, for any individual who “conspires” or acts with another person to shoplift from one or more retail establishments “with the intent to sell such retail property for monetary or other gain.” The felony charges would be triggered when $5,000 or more worth of goods is stolen within a 90-day period, according to the bills’ text.
The governor has a March 27 deadline to act on both measures, according to the state’s bill tracking system. Macaulay Porter, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the governor is reviewing the legislation but did not directly answer whether Youngkin plans to sign the bills. Representatives from the governor’s administration spoke in support of the House version of the bill as it advanced in committee.
Supporters of the legislation argued the bill is necessary to deter shoplifting groups from stealing from retail shops. In a 2021 report, the National Retail Foundation estimated organized retail crime costs retailers an average of $700,000 per $1 billion in sales.
When speaking in support of the House bill, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, cited a state report that estimates $1.3 billion in merchandise is stolen each year in the commonwealth, costing the state $80 million in lost tax revenue.
“They’re not walking out of the stores so that they can feed their families – this is organized crime,” Byron said during a floor speech on the House floor in February.
Attorney General Jason Miyares convened a work group to examine retail crime in Virginia, resulting in three meetings across the commonwealth last year with representatives from major retailers, law enforcement and lawmakers. The House and Senate bills were ultimately developed based on feedback received from the work groups.
Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate raised concern the measures could potentially target individuals who may be stealing to survive, but supporters of the bill insisted the measure specifically ensnares shoplifting groups – not individuals.
The original versions of both bills initially set a lower threshold – $1,000 over 90 days – to trigger the felony threshold. The final version of the bill that set the $5,000 threshold helped to address some of the concerns from lawmakers and others in opposition.
However, concern from some advocates still remains.
“The organized retail theft legislation is a punitive, needless response to an overblown issue,” Rob Poggenklass, interim executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, told The Center Square in an email. “Major retailers have convinced themselves and many media outlets of an organized shoplifting problem that is not nearly as big or widespread as they say.”
Poggenklass also raised concern about the special fund created by the bill, which will be used to award grants to commonwealth attorneys and law enforcement to “investigate, indict, and prosecute violations of organized retail theft and associated fraud and property crimes.”
“The special fund created by the legislation will encourage law enforcement to continue policing Black people and poor people for minor, nonviolent offenses,” Poggenklass said. “We are thankful the Senate insisted on raising the threshold in the legislation from $1,000 to $5,000. This ensures very few prosecutors will waste their time charging people with this new crime, when they can use existing larceny laws instead.”
The bill was backed by several major retailers, including Walmart and CVS, as well as several Commonwealth’s Attorneys and the Virginia Retail Federation.
“This is impacting retailers like Walmart to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and we are very hopeful that this measure will play a part in reducing that,” Ken Hutcheson, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of Walmart, said in a House committee hearing in January.
The National Retail Federation found in a survey of retailers that retail shrink – meaning inventory loss –when taken as a percentage of retail sales in 2022, accounted for $94.5 billion in losses last year. On average, retailers reported a 26.5% increase in organized retail crime, according to the NRF report.
This article First appeared in the center square