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Inflation Increases Likelihood of Felony Theft Charges

The threshold for what constitutes a petty theft varies by state. Many states, such as New York, make stealing more than $1,000 a felony. New Jersey has the nation’s lowest threshold. Its laws provide that a theft of $200 or more is a felony, a threshold that has not changed since 1978.

Inflation is a fact of life. The Federal Reserve has a goal of a 2% annual inflation rate. Tax brackets and Social Security benefits adjust for inflation. While the price of goods is constantly rising, the laws that classify whether a theft is a petty or serious remain stagnant.

In states like New York, a person who snatches an iPhone could end up in prison for four years. That same theft 10 years ago would have been considered petty, but it now carries felony consequences, which can make obtaining a job, housing, or rebuilding a life very difficult if not impossible.

An analysis in 2016 by the Pew Charitable Trusts looked at 30 states that increased felony theft thresholds between 2000 and 2012. While property thefts decreased nationwide over that period, the analysis found no evidence that the decline was slower in those states. There was no relationship between the level of the threshold and the level of property crime.

New York state Senator Brian Benjamin plans to introduce legislation to raise the state’s felony theft threshold for non-violent crimes to $5,000. “We want a system that penalizes people but doesn’t destroy their lives,” he said.

If enacted, the $5,000 threshold would be the highest in the nation. Wisconsin and Texas currently have the highest thresholds at $2,500. Benjamin’s bill would also account for inflation by requiring a review of inflation every five years. Thus, if inflation increased 2% annually, the threshold would raise to $5,500.

That legislation would decrease the number of people sent to prison and being burdened with a felony conviction. Since 2009, Florida has diverted people charged with low value thefts to probation, drug testing, community service, and making restitution rather than being sent to prison. A 2019 state analysis found the diverted defendants were less likely to steal again than those convicted of theft and sent to prison.

Assuring criminal laws keep pace with inflation is an overlooked tool in the box of reducing America’s plague of mass incarceration. 


Source: New York Times

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