McAuliffe’s conservative criminal-justice reforms
Many Virginians thought Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) forgot the General Assembly existed after his unilateral decree regarding felon voting rights last year. However, we have reason for encouragement this year as McAuliffe announced several reforms he wants to accomplish in his final year in office. Better late than never.
Though these proposals will likely be lauded on the left as some sort of progressive dream, the reality is that conservatives in red states have been producing successful results in criminal-justice reform for many years. While liberals try to talk about amorphous concepts such as “social justice,” conservatives have stuck to the facts and focused on data-driven solutions that enhance public safety.
In fact, some of McAuliffe’s latest proposals seem to be coming straight out of the heart of Texas. This month, he called for a higher threshold for felony theft.
Virginia is tied with New Jersey for the lowest felony theft threshold at $200. That means if someone steals an item worth more than $200, the crime becomes grand larceny, a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and that individual can face up to 20 years of imprisonment.
Research from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project shows that a majority of states have increased their theft threshold since 2001. Of the 23 states analyzed by Pew that made the change between 2001 and 2011, the larceny and property crime rates decreased in 19 states. On the whole, the states that increased the theft threshold had greater decreases in property crime and larceny rates than the states that did not increase the threshold.
This is where the Lone Star State truly shines. Texas and Wisconsin have the highest threshold, at $2,500, more than 10 times the amount in the commonwealth. Texas enjoys its lowest overall crime rate since 1967.
There are several good reasons to increase the outrageously out-of-date threshold in Virginia. There is the logical reason: Over time, as we all know, the value of a dollar decreases. The purchasing power of $200 when the threshold was set in 1980 is greater than $500 today.
Maintaining such a low threshold will pull low-risk individuals into the criminal system with a felony. We should be focusing our resources on more serious offenders. This is especially a problem for juveniles. Prison Fellowship, Right on Crime and the Thomas Jefferson Institute, in a report published in 2015, explained that because the threshold is so low, there is potential for nonviolent youths to be sentenced to juvenile correctional facilities, a wildly expensive system ($150,000 per child) that leads juveniles down the path to more crime.
Another McAuliffe proposal has been ripped from the headlines and policy papers in Texas. I agree with the governor that it is truly outrageous for our government to suspend a citizen’s driver’s license for not paying fines and fees, akin to the Texas program opposed by conservatives. This has become government’s version of squeezing blood from a turnip, and it is a fight in which conservatives in Virginia can work to limit government abuse.
The commonwealth still has a long way to go when it comes to reforming our criminal-justice system, but it will be conservative policies that get us to a better place. Conservatives in many red states have an incredible track record of reform, including discovery, juvenile justice and criminal-intent reforms. Even liberals such as McAuliffe have been unable to ignore this success.
Though McAuliffe may have coopted the Texas model for his own purposes, it will be up to Virginia conservatives in the General Assembly and elsewhere to lead the way on criminal-justice reform in this session and beyond.
Conservatives in red states have been producing successful results in criminal-justice reform for many years.
The writer, a former attorney general of Virginia, is a signatory to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles.