VIRGINIA HAS long been out of step with much of the country in refusing to change its approach to prosecuting theft, sticking with a meager $200 as the threshold for felony larceny. Set in 1980, the threshold has not kept pace with inflation, and that has meant untold numbers of people jailed for petty crimes and saddled for life with felony convictions. So the good news coming out of the General Assembly is that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) struck a deal with Republican leaders to finally raise the limit. The not-so-good news is that the increase is still far from adequate, and it may come with a trade-off that could hurt other criminal defendants.
Mr. Northam and House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) this week announced agreement to raise the felony larceny threshold to $500 as part of a compromise that stiffens procedures for defendants required to pay restitution to victims. The willingness to reach across the party divide should be applauded, and Mr. Northam correctly argues that no one gets exactly what they want in a compromise.
We can’t help, though, but be a bit disappointed that a better bargain wasn’t reached. A threshold of $500 would still keep Virginia behind most states and still doesn’t account for inflation. Many states, including neighboring Maryland and North Carolina, have a threshold of $1,000, and some have thresholds as high as $2,500.
A study last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that raising the felony theft threshold has no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates. And there are striking benefits: Costly prison space is prioritized for serious offenders with more appropriate punishment for those guilty of minor thefts.
As part of the agreement, the governor agreed to support Republican-sponsored victim restitution legislation. Similar legislation was vetoed last year by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who saw it as a move toward criminalizing the inability to pay restitution. Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, told us that objectionable provisions, such as indefinite probation for those who don’t make payments, have been removed. The concern, though, is whether there are sufficient protections requiring courts to take into account the ability of a defendant to pay.
Whether the administration should have held out for more is a matter of debate. Mr. Moran thinks not, citing the many fruitless past efforts to raise the threshold, legislative politics that currently favor the Republicans and the fact that an increase of $300 will make a difference in the lives of people who now will be more appropriately charged for their transgressions. But if there are to be congratulations, there also must be the recognition that this increase is just one small step toward fairer justice in Virginia.
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