In Virginia, stealing $200 or more is considered a felony. The state’s felony threshold is tied with New Jersey’s as the lowest in the country, and hasn’t been been updated since 1980.
But this year, Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and legislators announced a bipartisan deal to raise the threshold to $500, in exchange for restitution changes.
“We want to remain tough on crime in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said. “But it is unjust that a theft of something like a pair of shoes or a phone could send someone to prison with a felony conviction on their record for life.”
Even with a felony threshold of $500, the theft of a new iPhone would still result in a felony. Most states have thresholds of $1,000 and some are even higher. Critics say that the increased threshold is not high enough. Factoring in the inflation rate, $200 in 1980 would be worth more than $600 today.
“So we're going backwards and we need to be moving ahead,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director for the ACLU of Virginia.
The National Retail Federation has blocked efforts to raise Virginia’s felony threshold for years. Vice President of Loss Prevention Robert Moraca said a low rate deters organized crime, especially for retailers.
“It's not that uncommon for individuals to understand how the law works and know what they can get away with,” Moraca said.
But Jesse Frierson with Virginia’s NAACP has seen how the state’s low felony trigger has negatively affected some residents.
“Either people are desperate and having to do desperate things on one side, and the other … people just make unwise choices,” Frierson said. “Could be a kid in school swiping someone's cell phone.”
A recent study from Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that low felony thresholds are not a deterrent to property crime.
“States should take a critical look at what kind of crime control impact they’re getting by applying felony punishments to lower level property crimes,” said Jake Horowitz, director of research and policy for Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.
Horowitz said raising Virginia’s felony threshold could save the state money by reducing prison costs. A 2015 report from Virginia’s Department of Corrections found potential savings in prison bed space in the long run.
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