Vir­ginia is for felonies? Petty theft law from 1980s sticks

Imperial Valley Press - - LOCAL & REGION -

RICH­MOND, Va. (AP) — Steal­ing a $230 pair of eye­glasses would land you a mis­de­meanor con­vic­tion in most states. Shoplift­ing the same item in Vir­ginia could make you a felon for life.

To keep pace with in­fla­tion, at least 30 states have raised the dol­lar min­i­mum for felony charges in the last two decades. Three dozen have a thresh­old of $1,000 or more, and Wis­con­sin and Texas won’t charge thefts of less than $2,500 as felonies, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures.

Vir­ginia, how­ever, has kept its felony bar at $200 since 1980, when that money had the same buy­ing power as nearly $600 does to­day. Vir­ginia is tied with New Jer­sey for hav­ing the na­tion’s low­est felony thresh­old.

Damien Fere­bee said he was so em­bar­rassed af­ter he was caught steal­ing those eye­glasses that he paid back the store in Nor­folk. Fere­bee, who had a prior rob­bery con­vic­tion from 2004, pleaded guilty to felony lar­ceny and was sen­tenced to six months in jail. He also lost his job. Now work­ing as a cook at 31, he fears the lat­est felony will haunt him for years.

“You want to get back from your mis­takes, but it just makes it harder,” Fere­bee said.

Ken Cuc­cinelli, a former Repub­li­can Vir­ginia at­tor­ney gen­eral who sup­ports rais­ing the thresh­old, says Vir­gini­ans and es­pe­cially Repub­li­cans in the state have a long his­tory “of only deal­ing with crime by mak­ing any­thing and ev­ery­thing tougher.”

Demo­cratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s ef­fort to make any­thing less than $500 a mis­de­meanor sailed through the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Se­nate this year, but was stymied in a GOP-led House com­mit­tee last month af­ter re­tail groups in­sisted the lower thresh­old de­ters shoplift­ing.

“The ques­tion is, why would we make it eas­ier on peo­ple who steal?” said Repub­li­can Del. Rob Bell.

Crit­ics say Vir­ginia’s pol­icy is overly harsh on mi­nor crim­i­nals with­out do­ing any­thing to pre­vent crime.

Prose­cu­tors often agree to knock a first-time of­fender’s felony lar­ceny charge down to a mis­de­meanor when the stolen items are worth less than $1,000, but that de­pends largely on where the per­son is ar­rested, since prose­cu­tors have wide dis­cre­tion, said Michael Sprano, a north­ern Vir­ginia at­tor­ney who works those cases.

Some prose­cu­tors will only re­duce a felony shoplift­ing charge to a mis­de­meanor if the ac­cused agrees to serve jail time, Sprano said. And be­cause judges don’t typ­i­cally give jail time for first-time felony of­fenses, some de­fen­dants must de­cide whether to take a felony and go home, or get a mis­de­meanor and serve in jail.

“I had a client once who chose the felony in­stead of do­ing a month in jail be­cause if he did the month in jail, he would’ve lost his job and his apart­ment and his fam­ily was de­pend­ing on him,” Sprano said.

It is un­clear how many Vir­gini­ans are be­ing locked up for steal­ing low-priced items. A study by the Vir­ginia Crim­i­nal Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion in 2016 found that in fis­cal years 2012 and 2013, nearly 850 peo­ple were con­victed of felony lar­ceny who would have re­ceived a mis­de­meanor had the state’s thresh­old been $500.

Of those, 430 peo­ple were given pro­ba­tion or no in­car­cer­a­tion, about 340 served jail time and nearly 80 were sent to prison, with a me­dian sen­tence of more than a year. Mean­while, they joined the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Vir­gini­ans who’ve been dis­en­fran­chised due to felonies and must have their vot­ing rights re­stored by the gov­er­nor.

Vir­ginia re­tail­ers say the shoplifters in their stores aren’t peo­ple who make just one bad de­ci­sion. They’re often part of or­ga­nized re­tail crime rings and are well aware of the state’s lar­ceny thresh­old, said Kate Baker, a lob­by­ist for the Vir­ginia Re­tail Fed­er­a­tion.

If the thresh­old is “raised to $500 or $1,000, they’re go­ing to steal up to $499 or $999 and re­tail­ers are go­ing to eat that,” said Lori Janke, who owns three re­sale cloth­ing stores.

Janke said she’s had eight significant shoplift­ing in­ci­dents at her stores over the last six years. None in­volved first-time of­fend­ers and most ended up with mis­de­meanor con­vic­tions, she said.

Cal­i­for­nia re­tail­ers re­ported a surge in shoplift­ing af­ter the state ended the pos­si­bil­ity of charg­ing peo­ple who steal any­thing below $950 with a felony in 2014. Large re­tail­ers in­clud­ing Safe­way, Tar­get, Rite Aid and CVS phar­ma­cies said last year that shoplift­ing had in­creased at least 15 per­cent while shoplift­ing re­ports to the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment jumped by a quar­ter in the law’s first year.

But a re­port by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter last year found no ef­fect on prop­erty crimes or lar­ceny rates in 23 states that raised their thresh­olds be­tween 2001 and 2011.

AP PHOTO

Store owner Lori Janke works in her store March 7 in New­port News, Va. Janke op­poses the pro­posed rais­ing of the felony theft thresh­old that passed the Se­nate but was killed by the House this last leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

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