State law differentiates felony theft from misdemeanor theft based on the value of the property stolen. This threshold varies from $500 to $2,500, depending on the state.
The felony theft threshold should be increased for reasons of fundamental fairness. Inflation changes the value of consumer goods. Every year after a felony theft threshold is enacted, less and less value is required to trigger a felony. A theft that would have been a misdemeanor in, say 2000, could easily be a felony today. In other words, defendants are being treated differently over time.
Keeping the felony theft threshold unnecessarily high strains prosecutorial, judicial and correctional resources. In other words, it costs the state more than it’s worth. At the same time, charging or convicting low-level, petty offenders of a felony harms their chances of finding employment, becoming able to contribute to society productively, and are more likely to require more state resources when they become repeat offenders.
Increasing felony thresholds do not result in higher crime rates. Pew Charitable Trusts published a 2016 study which found that: (1) Raising the felony theft threshold has no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates. (2) States that increased their thresholds reported roughly the same average decrease in crime as the 27 states that did not change their theft laws. (3) The amount of a state’s felony theft threshold—whether it is $500, $1,000, $2,000, or more—is not correlated with its property crime and larceny rates.
South Carolina provides a useful case study about lowering theft thresholds. In 2009, South Carolina’s prison population was projected to grow by more than 3,000 inmates within five years increasing operation costs by $141 million and calling for an additional $317 million for constructing new prisons. The correctional population had nearly tripled and state spending on the penal system had increased by more than 500% in twenty-five years. The study found that forty-four percent of prison admissions in the year 2009 alone were for low-level offenders, most of whom were serving sentences of less than eighteen months on average. A study of the causes for this unsustainable growth led the South Carolina General Assembly to pass the Omnibus on Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010. The bill increased the felony property threshold from $1,000 to $2,000 allowing prisons to be reserved for ‘high risk’ and violent offenders and reduced prison overcrowding in South Carolina.
Theft Threshold Reform Act
Summary: The Theft Threshold Reform Act increases the dollar amount necessary to categorize a theft [or larceny] as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE
This Act shall be called the “Theft Threshold Reform Act.”
SECTION 2. FINDINGS AND PURPOSE
(A) FINDINGS—The legislature finds that:
1) The threshold dollar value for a theft to be considered a felony is currently [$XXXX], enacted in [year].
2) The felony theft threshold should be adjusted upwards to provide a measure of fundamental fairness.
3) The felony theft threshold should be adjusted upwards to lower unnecessary prosecutorial, judicial and correctional expenses for the state.
4) In the states that have increased their felony theft thresholds over the past fifteen years, it has caused no discernable increase in crime rates.
(B) PURPOSE—This law is enacted to protect the promote equity, efficiency, and fundamental fairness in the criminal justice system.
SECTION 3. THEFT THRESHOLD
In section XXX [where the threshold is currently written] delete [current amount] and insert:
SECTION 4. EFFECTIVE DATE
This Act shall take effect on XXXX 1, 2016.