Stealing a bike worth $800 in Maryland is a misdemeanor that may cost you a fine and a few days in jail. However, right across the Potomac in Virginia, taking the same item is a felony that can put you in a state prison for at least one year, cost you thousands of dollars in fines, take away your right to vote for the rest of your life (unless the governor restores it), and leave long-lasting consequences that follow you after you’ve served your time.
That’s because Virginia’s felony larceny threshold — the amount of theft that allows charging someone with a felony instead of a misdemeanor — is only $500, one of the lowest in the nation. The Virginia General Assembly has increased the threshold only once since 1980, from $200 to $500. This so-called “raise” praised by lawmakers as “reform” didn’t even keep up with the rate of inflation, however, as $200 in 1980 is equivalent to about $624 in 2019. An adjustment should have happened a long time ago to create real progress and bring fairness and justice to our criminal legal system.
The felony larceny threshold in Maryland, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and West Virginia is $1,000, in Delaware it is $1,500, and in South Carolina it is $2,000. Virginia is trailing far behind our neighbors, and in 2020, lawmakers have an opportunity to catch up and right this injustice by raising our felony larceny threshold to at least $1,500.
Additionally, in Virginia, when a person is convicted of three counts of petit larceny — theft of money or goods worth less than $500 — they are automatically felonized on the third offense, no matter the circumstances. Every year, Virginia’s “three-strike” petit larceny statute funnels thousands of people into the prison system for petty theft, exposes them to dangerous and dehumanizing conditions, and increases racial disparities in our criminal legal system.
Donna Armstrong Reed was one of the thousands of people sentenced to years behind bars for three-strike petit larceny offenses. She shoplifted $45 worth of suntan products and was serving part of her three-year sentence at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where she tragically died in 2018. Like many women who are incarcerated in Virginia, Reed was a sexual abuse survivor who lived with PTSD and alcohol and drug abuse, which contributed to her incarceration and eventually her death. It’s important to take into consideration people’s circumstances and come up with not just convictions and punishments, but long-term solutions that help people get back on their feet and reduce recidivism.
Larceny rates have steadily declined by more than a third between 1998 and 2015, including in the 39 states that raised their felony larceny thresholds within that time. Increasing the felony larceny threshold has no effect on property crime and larceny rates, but it would help reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails for low-level offenses and spare them the hundreds of collateral consequences that come with felony convictions, including losing the right to vote for life.
Communities of color and people with low income continue to be disproportionately impacted by Virginia’s low felony larceny threshold and three strikes law. Reforming our felony larceny law is a crucial step to stop the growing racial and income disparities in our prisons and jails. In 2014 when California reduced six nonviolent felonies — including drug possession — to misdemeanors while raising the threshold for felony theft from $450 to $950, San Francisco witnessed a decrease in the number of black people booked into jail and racial disparities within its system.
The situation in Virginia is not the same as in California, but one thing we know for sure is that as inflation continues, failing to raise the felony larceny threshold and eliminating the three strikes statute means increasing penalties and punishments for the same crime. When laws are broken, there should be consequences. It’s a cardinal sentencing principle, however, that the punishment should fit the crime and carefully balance the costs to people, families and communities. It’s past time we ignore the high price of Virginia’s low felony larceny threshold. Virginia lawmakers must take action now to raise Virginia’s felony larceny threshold to at least $1,500 and do away with the “three strikes” petit larceny statute.