Once a person has paid a penalty for a crime, we should let them put their past behind them. Last week, the legislature took one small step in that direction.
The Senate passed a bill raising the monetary threshold that divides misdemeanor larceny from felony larceny. Under current law, if one steals something under $250 in value, it is a misdemeanor, but if one steals more than $250 it is a felony. We voted to raise that line to $1500.
The reason the felony/misdemeanor classification matters is that a felony conviction follows a person much longer. After 5 years, if someone stays of out of trouble, a misdemeanor conviction is no longer reported on a standard criminal record inquiry. Also, after five years, one can apply to have the conviction sealed, so that it is inaccessible to enhanced record inquiries and one can lawfully deny having a criminal record. By contrast, a felony conviction takes ten years to live down.
The line between the two levels of larceny conviction was first put in place by Chapter 261 of the Acts of 1906 and set at $100. In today’s dollars, the dividing line would be roughly $2500, so $1500 is not an historically high level. Nor is it high as compared to other states — Texas (recently changed) and Wisconsin are at $2500. 4 other states are at $2000. Massachusetts would join 5 other states at the $1500 level. We are currently at the very bottom nationally, with only two states lower. Other states that have raised their larceny thresholds have not seen an increase in crime.
Another indicator that the dividing line is way too low in Massachusetts is that it does not correspond at all to practice in the courts. Most larceny cases — there are 40,000 larceny charges per year in our courts — are resolved without even a conviction, through a dismissal or continuance without a finding (which may involve probation and restitution). When the cases do lead to conviction, the sentences are usually modest. According to the Fiscal 2013 Survey of Sentencing Practices, convictions for larcenies over $250 and under $10,000 (1,969 in FY2013) result in incarceration only half of the time (946). In cases resulting in incarceration, the mean sentence is 7.1 months in the House of Correction and none were sent to State Prison. See technical note below.
Massachusetts has two levels in its prison system, the Houses of Correction and the State Prison. A felony is a crime punishable by imprisonment in the State Prison. All other crimes are misdemeanors. Misdemeanors may be punished by fines and/or by incarceration in a House of Correction. The fact that larcenies under $10,000 almost never result in State Prison sentences — even though the courts have the option, in cases over $250 — means that prosecutors and judges view these crimes as misdemeanors.
We should conform the labeling and the record consequences more closely to the practice — petty thieves should not bear the same stigma as violent criminals. Arguably, we should be going higher, but $1,500 is a step in the right direction.
There is another consequence of the misdemeanor/felony distinction: A police officer can arrest someone without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe they have committed a felony, but must send them a summons to court for a misdemeanor (except in certain kinds of misdemeanor cases where arrest is authorized by statute). In the larceny context, officers often “arrest” someone briefly for the purpose of confiscating stolen property and then release them to a court summons. We added language to preserve this enforcement tool for misdemeanor larcenies between $250 and the new felony threshold of $1500.
There is much more we need to do to make our criminal justice system fair and efficient and conducive to healing. Our incarceration rates are roughly 5 times what they were in the 70s and our system tends to make any moderately serious mistake a crippling long-term barrier to employment, housing and education. We have our work cut out for us.
Appendix: Larceny from the Person
I’ve received a note from a constituent that read as follows:
This proposed change seems like a really high threshold, and, honestly, this makes me feel less safe as a resident of [omitted]. I have witnessed purse snatchers in the neighborhood, and as a single female who lives alone, this potential change in the law is disturbing. Currently, if someone were to steal my purse or wallet, that crime could be charged as a felony, given the value of the bag, its contents, the wallet, etc., and I think that it should be. Making anything under $1,500 a misdemeanor removes the more serious consequence. I hope that you will think about all of your constituents in the future when issues such as this come up. I understand that criminal justice reform is necessary in both the Commonwealth and the country, but I don’t think that changing the statutory definition of larceny is necessarily the way to accomplish that goal.
Please be assured that this bill does not affect larcenies from the person which are a completely separate crime and are always a felony regardless of amount. A larceny from the person is really a crime of violence and intrinsically more serious than general larceny.