Bill Would Save Petty Thieves from a Felony

Jan 13, 2016

Someone who steals merchandise valued at more than $200 can be convicted of a felony in Virginia – denied the right to vote, and required to tell employers about past criminal conduct.  Now, there’s a move in Richmond to raise the threshold for a charge of larceny, making it possible for thieves to steal up to $1,500 worth of stuff and be charged with a misdemeanor.  The idea has store owners seeing red as Sandy Hausman reports.

If you’re convicted of larceny in Virginia, it’s a felony, and there are lifelong consequences.  It’s harder to get a job.  You can’t vote or serve on a jury, and it doesn’t take much to be branded a felon.

“Virginia now has the lowest larceny threshold of any state in the country," says Claire Gasetenaga, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia. "It’s $200.  It was set back in the 80’s, and North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and D.C. are all at $1,000, and we have data that shows that even states like Texas that have taken the threshold up to $2,500, there’s been no increase in larcenies. There’s not been some huge crime wave that has occurred.”

Gastenaga says this low threshold for larceny is one reason why 400,000 adults in this state are not allowed to vote.

“There’s so much good evidence to show that re-engaging people in the civic process is an important part of not having them go back to jail.”

But at the Virginia Retail Merchants’ Association, Laurie Aldrich is not convinced.

“There have actually been individuals who have been caught with surrounding state thresholds listed on a piece of paper in their pocket," she says. "They know where the penalties are higher, and that means they’re going to surrounding states where they can steal more and the penalties are less.  That’s a good deterrent for Virginia.  I don’t think Virginia wants to suffer even more damages.  I mean this is a loss in sales tax revenue as well.”

Aldrich couldn’t identify her source for that information, nor could she say whether shoplifting is more common here than in neighboring states, but she’s outraged by the idea that Virginia could go from a threshold of $200 to $1,500.

“This is gigantic.  This is way above a regular cost-of-living increase that they’re trying to give criminals.”

But Democrat Sam Rasoul and Republican Bryce Reeves are pressing ahead with House and Senate bills to raise the threshold, and Gastenaga says the ACLU is in.

“We’re not in the business of trying to encourage people to go out and commit shoplifting.  That’s not the focus.  The focus is to make sure that the punishment fits the crime.”

Several other states have raised their threshold for larceny, hoping to reduce the number of non-violent criminals they have behind bars.  They argued it was costing too much to jail petty thieves.  Here in Virginia, a misdemeanor theft could still result in up to a year of jail time and a fine.