According to the Associated Press (AP), Massachusetts lawmakers will soon vote on whether or not to raise the minimum dollar amount that separates misdemeanor and felony theft in our state. This decision comes as part of the sweeping criminal justice reform bill that passed in October 2017. As can be expected, supporters of criminal justice reform favor the proposed change, while retailers ardently oppose it. Let’s take a closer look.
The Existing Law
As of now, a person convicted of stealing any item valued at $250 or above receives a felony grand larceny charge. Items worth less than $250 carry a misdemeanor sentence. This distinction went into effect back in 1987 and has not been adjusted to allow for inflation and the increased cost of living.
Furthermore, the charge of felony theft shows up on criminal background checks for up to 10 years, whereas a misdemeanor theft charge only appears for five years. The status quo makes it extremely difficult for convicted felons to obtain employment after their release from prison.
The Proposed Change in Legislation
Congress members will decide if the felony theft minimum will be raised to $1,000. Only two other states have a lower minimum than Massachusetts; Virginia and New Jersey set it at $200. The rest of New England and many other states across the country have adopted a $1,000 threshold or higher.
In October, a bill that would reset the state minimum to $1,500 failed in the Senate and Republicans suggested it be lowered to $750. The full House then voted to push the issue and vote on a $1,000 minimum, which will happen in the near future.
Director of CORI and the Re-entry Project for Greater Boston Legal Services Pauline Quirion remarked to the press, “With young people, they grow up poor and they make mistakes.” She also stated that people often steal to support addiction habits and the currently-low felony threshold likely hinders efforts to get and remain clean.
The Retailer Perspective
Unsurprisingly, retailers do not support the potential change in legislation and fear an increase in theft. The Retailers Association of Massachusetts estimates that criminals steal up to $1 billion in merchandise every year.
In response to Quirion’s statement, a representative from the association said, “These are not kids making mistakes but professionals making a conscious decision to steal. For such bad actors, increasing the felony threshold only incentivizes their behavior and reduces their risk of conviction.”
Though they worry that increasing the felony minimum will result in higher losses, data from other states don’t support the concept. In fact, the 23 states that have adopted a felony theft minimum of $1,000 or higher reported zero effect on the number of annual property crimes or larceny rates, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study.
Potential Effect on Convictions
There is a possibility that people with felonies for stolen property worth less than $1,000 may have their convictions amended if the new law passes. However, we will simply have to wait and see if this happens.