Commentary: Small But Needed Step in the Right Direction

Commentary: Small But Needed Step in the Right Direction

Why raising the felony larceny threshold to $500 is an important step in Virginia?

Recently, Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation to raise the felony larceny threshold from $200 to $500 in Virginia as part of a bipartisan compromise. While imperfect as many bills are, HB 1550, carried by Delegate Les Adams, is a small but necessary step in the right direction.

Raising the threshold is a key breakthrough for common sense criminal justice reform. I applaud Governor Northam for not only delivering on a top campaign promise within his first few months in office -- but doing so by coming to a bipartisan compromise and working with his Republican partners across the aisle. I was privileged to carry the Governor’s legislation the past two years to raise this threshold. While my legislation did not move forward, I was honored to serve as a co-patron on HB 1550 and privileged to have the opportunity to finally help make this initiative the law.

In recent years, Virginia has been a leader in the nation when it comes to providing people second chances -- which is why it is surprising that Virginia has held the lowest larceny threshold in the country alongside New Jersey at $200. In my mind, this was simply unacceptable. Since 2000, at least 37 states have raised their felony thefts thresholds, and many of our neighboring states, including North Carolina and West Virginia, have their felony larceny threshold at $1,000.

Raising the threshold will not only create a more just and fairer system -- but it is fiscally responsible and will create a safer Commonwealth. According to the ACLU, larceny convictions accounted for one out of every four individuals incarcerated in 2012, at a cost of approximately $25,000 a year per individual. The Virginia Department of Corrections found that the state could have saved between $18.3 million and $22.5 million just in prison costs between fiscal years 2009 and 2014 had the General Assembly raised the threshold to $500 or $600 in 2008. And the savings could have been even higher if it was raised to $1,000.

It is worth noting that people cannot contribute to our economy if they are incarcerated. Virginians who have paid their debt to society and strive to actively contribute to it, find themselves struggling to find employment because of a felony record, when it could have been a misdemeanor. Those convicted of larceny also face barriers to housing, healthcare or taking out a loan.

Raising the felony larceny threshold does not only pertain to adults; it impacts the Commonwealth’s children too. Larceny was the top category for juvenile arrest in Virginia in 2017. This means that one can be carrying the weight of an adolescent mistake on their back for the rest of their life. We can and must do better.

I have been working on the issue of raising the felony larceny threshold for two years now. While I was proud to carry versions of this bill on behalf of Governor Ralph Northam and former Governor Terry McAuliffe, I kept thinking to myself during that time that we cannot let one’s mistake ruin that person’s entire life. Virginia’s progress on this issue has been slow, but this breakthrough for criminal justice reform is a small and needed step in the right direction.