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Inflation Transforming Petty Offenses Into Felonies

by Douglas Ankney

In the recent collective memory of Americans, $200 purchased almost 100 gallons of gasoline. Today, fewer than 50 gallons of gas can be purchased with that same $200. Two years ago, theft of that 50 gallons of gas in New Jersey was a misdemeanor. Today, that same theft is a felony.

Across the nation, while prices increase due to inflation, the threshold amount of value that transforms misdemeanor petit larceny into felony grand larceny remains static. In New Jersey, since 1978, the felony larceny threshold is $200. In New Mexico, it’s $500. In 1986, New York increased the threshold to $1,000.

A “felony” is defined as “a serious crime usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death. Examples include murder, rape, arson, and burglary.” Black’s Law Dictionary (“Black’s”). Somehow, it just seems wrong to include in that list of felonies the theft of 50 gallons of gas or the shoplifting of a winter coat.

Such thefts are crimes. But “misdemeanor” is defined as “a crime that is less serious than a felony and is usually punishable by fine, penalty, forfeiture, or confinement (usually for a brief term) in a place other than prison (such as a county jail).” (Black’s). Advocates are pushing for states to modify their felony statutes in light of these economic realities. Campaign Zero Executive Director DeRay Mckesson says: “Leaving the bar for a felony unchanged for years on end is contributing to skyrocketing prison populations, which disproportionately affects communities of color.”

However, the National Retail Federation (“NRF”) has blamed increased felony theft thresholds for reported retail crime surges. A survey from NRF shows that, on average, organized retail crime costs retailers more than $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales; and that 69% of retailers surveyed in 2021 said they had seen a rise in organized retail crime during the previous year.

But a 2017 Pew Charitable Trust study found that 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 and observed that raising the felony theft threshold had no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates.

Perhaps the better idea is to include the circumstances of the theft along with the dollar value before mechanically charging a felony.  


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