by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
It was 1980. John Dalton was Governor, a gallon of gasoline cost 86 cents, iPhones were science fiction, and Virginians were lining up to see The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen. It was also the last time that Virginia updated its felony larceny threshold – the amount that determines whether a person is charged with a felony or misdemeanor for larceny. In 1980, Virginia raised the threshold from $100 to $200. Today, nine Governors later, a gallon of gas costs $2.11, iPhones are everywhere (and cost over $600), and Virginians are anxiously awaiting the release of Star Wars 7. Yet, the felony larceny threshold remains stuck in 1980. It’s time for Virginia to take the term “felony” seriously and raise the dollar threshold to an appropriate level.
On Wednesday, the Virginia Senate took a major step toward raising the threshold when the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted in favor of SB 1234, a bill that would raise the threshold from $200 to $500. While still leaving Virginia with one of the lowest thresholds in the country, a $500 threshold would provide a more appropriate response to theft and save tax dollars without placing Virginia businesses in jeopardy of increased theft.
At $200, Virginia’s threshold is the lowest in the country. Adjusting the threshold to $500 is actually lower than the current $200 threshold when adjusted for inflation, which would be approximately $573 today. Thirty states have set their felony larceny threshold at $1000 or more, including Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, and North Carolina, and forty-six states have set their threshold at $500 or more. It’s past time for Virginia to join its neighbors.
The evidence is clear – raising the threshold does not increase theft. While opponents claim that increasing the threshold would place Virginia retailers in jeopardy of a larceny crime wave, the facts paint a different picture. For example, in 1993 Texas raised its threshold from $750 to $1500 and between 1992 (the year before the change) and 2012 the number of thefts (as measured by FBI UCR statistics) declined by over 80,000, despite a population increase of over eight million people. And, this trend is not limited to Texas. At least twelve states that have raised their threshold to $1000 or more saw a decline in thefts. Let’s also not forget that stealing anything below the felony threshold (petit larceny) is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2500 fine. Our legislators should base public policy decisions on facts, not rhetoric – and the facts are clear, raising the threshold would not harm Virginia retailers.
And, for those who engage in multiple thefts, Virginia already has a three strikes larceny statute. Under Virginia law, anyone convicted of a third offense larceny – even if all they stole was a candy bar on three separate occasions – is guilty of a Class 6 felony. Thus, those who repeatedly steal could still be punished with a felony.
Raising the threshold would also save Virginia taxpayers millions annually. Larceny convictions accounted for one out of every four individuals incarcerated in 2012, at a cost of approximately $25,000 a year per individual. In 2008 the Virginia Department of Corrections estimated that adjusting the threshold to $500 would save taxpayers over 3.5 million dollars in saved prison bed costs in 2013 alone. Because the number of individuals incarcerated for larceny has increased since 2008 this number is likely larger. The current threshold is an inefficient use of the Commonwealth’s scarce resources.
Finally, adjusting the threshold would help make communities safer. Virginia is expending valuable and limited resources prosecuting and incarcerating people for these low level felonies, resources that could be better directed to programs that keep communities safe. A felony for a low-level offense like theft of $300 can destroy a person’s family, chance at ever finding work again, educational prospects, and more, thereby significantly increasing the chance that a person will remain involved in the criminal justice system. In most low-level cases like these, community sanctions are both more appropriate and more effective. Instead of invoking severe, ineffective penalties, Virginia would get better results, for less money by raising the theft threshold and reserving the felony designation for more serious crimes.
SB 1234 is a commonsense approach to addressing Virginia’s felony larceny offenses. Contact your legislators and urge them to support SB 1234.
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PUNISHING THE POOR IS NOT REFORM