3 reasons why raising felony theft thresholds is a better way to deal with theft

March 17, 2017
By Hilary Gowins

Illinois spent $58 million in 2015 to imprison offenders charged with felony theft. But evidence shows increasing the threshold, as 29 other states have done since 2001, doesn’t increase property crime or larceny rates.

Illinois is out of step with most states when it comes to punishing theft.

The dollar amount that triggers a felony is low – compared to Illinois’ $500 threshold, 29 other states have felony theft thresholds that are twice as high or even greater, including Texas and Wisconsin, where theft below $2,500 is generally a misdemeanor.

Retailers in Illinois have come out against a bill that would bring Illinois in line with other states. House Bill 3337, which was introduced Feb. 22, would increase the felony theft threshold to $2,000.

“Anytime you increase that threshold, I think it sends a terrible signal,” Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said in an interview with WBBM Newsradio.

Theft is a serious problem that shouldn’t be downplayed. Victims often are ignored in discussions on how to deal with instances of theft. But the facts don’t support Karr’s position that low felony theft thresholds deter crime.

  1. The dollar threshold has no overall impact on overall property crime or larceny rates: The Pew Charitable Trusts examined crime trends in the 28 states that raised their felony theft thresholds between 2001 and 2011, and issued three main findings:
  • Raising the felony theft threshold has no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates.
  • States that increased their thresholds reported roughly the same average decrease in crime as the 22 states that did not change their theft laws.
  • The amount of a state’s felony theft threshold – whether it is $500, $1,000, $2,000 or more – is not correlated with its property crime and larceny rates. 
  1. Prison is an ineffective and expensive way to deal with nonviolent offenders: Lower felony thresholds mean more people go to prison for theft. But incarceration is an expensive and ineffective way to deal with nonviolent offenders. It costs the state $22,000 per inmate each year to keep someone in prison – and that’s not including the cost of things like employee compensation paid out to prison workers. With 2,627 people behind bars for felony theft in 2015, that means the state paid $58 million to imprison them. This investment doesn’t pay off in terms of improving offenders’ behavior: Nearly half of ex-offenders return to prison within three years – and each instance of recidivism costs nearly $120,000.

Cycling in and out of prison isn’t just costly financially – it also squanders human potential. The public has a vested interest in ensuring that offenders are rehabilitated, because 97 percent of people residing in Illinois prisons will return to their communities. When nearly half of ex-offenders return to prison just three years after release, it’s clear the system isn’t working.

Research shows that people who commit low-level retail thefts are less likely to commit future crimes if they receive community-based supervision instead of a prison sentence.

  1. Victims lose under the incarceration scenario because they are not made whole: Not only does Illinois waste money sending more nonviolent offenders to prison, but Illinois’ system for dealing with theft crimes also means that even if an offender is punished, victims are not made whole.

In addition to raising theft thresholds, a better way to deal with theft is to encourage additional, alternative reforms such as restorative justice, which compensates victims for their losses.

The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform released its full set of reform proposals Jan. 10, which included a policy to raise the felony theft threshold to $2,000. HB 3337 is the realization of this proposal.

Passing this reform would work toward Gov. Bruce Rauner’s goal of reducing the state’s prison population 25 percent by 2025.

TAGS: criminal justice reform, felony theft