RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia legislators and civil rights groups are once again working to raise the threshold for grand larceny, two years after its first increase in nearly 40 years.
State legislators increased the limit, which bumps theft up to a felony with a punishment of up to $2,500 in fines and 20 years in prison, from $200 to $500 in a rare compromise in 2018. It was the first increase since 1980. But when legislators return for their 2020 legislative session, the ACLU of Virginia hopes they will increase the limit once more, closer to the national average of $1,000.
“Stealing a bike worth $800 in Maryland is a misdemeanor that may cost you a fine and a few days in jail,” Phuong Tran, an ACLU of Virginia spokesperson, said in a Tuesday blog post. “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.”
The ACLU’s efforts mirror those in 2018 that ended with the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate signing off on the $500 threshold after securing more stringent criminal restitution laws requiring criminals to stay on probation until they’ve paid off their debt.
According to a state study, about $230 million was owed to victims through the states restitution system.
And while the 2020 session is still a few weeks away, at least one legislator is on board with a second threshold increase. Delegate Joseph Lindsey, a Democrat whose district covers Norfolk and parts of Virginia Beach along the state’s southern coast, played a key role in the 2018 compromise and has submitted a bill to increase the threshold to $750, pushing it further toward the national average.
“By raising it, we are sending a clear message that theft is a serious crime, but stealing one phone or pair of boots should not ruin a person’s life,” Lindsey said in a 2018 statement that noted the $200 limit was the lowest in the nation.
Research doesn’t necessarily correlate an increase in grand-larceny thresholds with changes in criminal charges. Efforts to increase limits picked up steam in the early 2000s, according to Pew Research, and while the number of grand larcenies decreased since, so did all theft-related crime.
“When comparing the 30 states that raised their felony theft thresholds between 2000 and 2012 with the 20 that did not, property crime and larceny rates fell slightly more in the latter group, although the differences were not statistically significant,” Pew wrote in its 2017 study “Effects of Changing Felony Theft Thresholds,” which used federal crime data.
Pew said experts link the overall decrease in crime to a number of factors, including an increase in camera surveillance systems, home alarms and digital transactions that have reduced the need for cash.
A 2015 study from the Virginia Department of Corrections also found negligible effects on increasing the threshold. While some theorized the decrease in felony convictions could lead to fewer prison beds being filled, the agency pointed out there’s still the broader issue of overcrowding.
“The resulting annual prison bed savings would range from two to twenty over the next six years,” the study states. “However, the analysis noted that any beds freed by this change would be filled by other DOC offenders now being held in local jails.”
Still, Todd Stone, a former Virginia federal prosecutor-turned defense attorney, said increasing the threshold “absolutely makes sense.”
He and others noted threshold limits that aren’t updated fail to account for inflation; when Virginia increased the threshold in 1980 to $200, it would add up to $600 in today’s dollars. And while prosecutorial discretion allows for reduced charges in some cases, Stone said it’s not great to rely on the whims of prosecutors, especially when each jurisdiction has its own commonwealth’s attorney.
“It’s true that a prosecutor might be less likely to reduce a $600 theft now, but that ‘human element’ has always existed in the system, and raising the bar to keep up with inflation statewide makes sense,” Stone said in an email.
While Stone also praised the ACLU for advocating for those whom these laws affect, he noted such efforts could be hampered by the recent increase and a response of “we just did that” from legislators.
“Slow change to keep up with the times is better than no change,” he said.
Even if the effort is political, it has long gotten support from progressive activists. With Democrats controlling the House, Senate and executive seat in Governor Ralph Northam, such policies have a chance at life unseen in decades.
This increase in the grand larceny threshold could be among them.
Delegate Lindsey did not return a request for comment over the Christmas holiday.