Apr 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

As inflation keeps rising, more small-time thefts count as felonies

Dollar amount thresholds for when a theft becomes a felony
Adapted from a Campaign Zero map; Map: Axios Visuals

Steal $201 shoes in New Jersey and you face a felony. Steal the same sneakers in Texas, it's a misdemeanor.

The big picture: Some states haven't changed their thresholds for felonies in years. Advocates are pushing them to create updated standards, arguing that outdated laws are unfairly making felons out of people who committed minor crimes.

Details: An analysis by the police reform advocacy group Campaign Zero found that the felony threshold for larcenies like shoplifting can be as low as $200 in New Jersey or high as $2,500 in Texas and Wisconsin.

  • New Jersey hasn't adjusted its felony theft threshold since 1978. New York's remains at $1,000 -- unchanged since 1986 when the Mets last won the World Series. New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the country, has a threshold of only $500.

Why it matters: Felony offenses typically carry a penalty of at least a year in state prison.

  • Leaving the bar for a felony unchanged for years on end is contributing to skyrocketing prison populations, which disproportionately affect communities of color, Campaign Zero executive director DeRay Mckesson told Axios.

What they're saying: "Because of inflation, $1 today is worth a lot less than $1 in the 1980s. And so a state (with a decades-old unchanged threshold) is then applying felony punishments to crimes of lesser and lesser significance," said Jake Horowitz, Director of Safety & Justice Research and Strategy at Pew Trust.

  • "It's one thing if a legislature passes a law to enhance a penalty. It's another thing when they sort of just slide into increased punitiveness," Horowitz told Axios.

The other side: The National Retail Federation, which in recent months has been sending out alarms about jumps in shoplifting, has blamed increased felony theft thresholds for reported retail crime surges.

  • Organized retail crime costs retailers more than $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales on average, according to NRF’s 2020 Organized Retail Crime Survey,
  • And 69% of retailers surveyed in 2021 said they had seen a rise in organized retail crime during the previous year.
  • The National Retail Federation declined to comment on Campaign Zero's campaign.

But, but, but: The Pew Charitable Trusts examined crime trends in the 30 states that raised their felony theft thresholds between 2000 and 2012 and found that raising the felony theft threshold had no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates

  • Since 2000, more than two dozen states have raised the value of stolen money or goods above which prosecutors may charge theft offenses as felonies, rather than misdemeanors, a 2017 Pew Charitable Trust study found.

The intrigue: Democratic New Mexico state Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, a criminal justice reform advocate, said it's hard for state lawmakers to raise the threshold for theft because they will be seen as lowering penalties for crimes.

  • "Police groups and retailers will oppose it. For thresholds to be raised, it has to come as part of a larger package of reforms."

Be smart: COVID-19 and rising violent crime have caused backlogs in criminal cases across the U.S. to swell, forcing district attorneys to focus on the most violent offenses.

  • The number of violent crimes in the U.S. rose by 5.6% in 2020, according to FBI figures released in September and new FBI data to be released later this year may show another spike.
  • Crime is expected to be a crucial issue in this year's midterm elections.

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