Raising the Threshold for Felony Larceny

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.

Technical note: The Massachusetts Sentencing Commission defines Larceny between $250 and $10,000 as a Level 3 offense. See Table 44 in the Survey of Sentencing Practices — State Prison Sentences to see that there were no state prison sentences at this level — “Larceny More” in Level 3. See Table 46 for the mean and median sentences to the House of Correction.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

18 replies on “Raising the Threshold for Felony Larceny”

  1. So if someone steals a $1400 PC, that’s only a misdemeanor. I see.

    I am wondering if many auto thefts are still classified as “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.”

    If the thieves then torch the vehicle, but it’s worth less than $1500, is that a misdemeanor?

    1. Not a misdemeanor I don’t think. Auto theft is a felony, I believe. So is melicious destruction of property, I believe. There are a whole host of charges that apply to car theft.

  2. Senator Brownsberger,

    I support your efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. Please continue the good work.

  3. All good.

    What is the projected savings per year for Massachusetts in prosecution and prison costs?

  4. My credit card information was stolen by a waiter, who immediately went on a high-end spending spree. I was on vacation and lost the use of my credit cards, along with my identity, to this Criminal! I definitely think of them as a felon and want them charged with a felony.

    You’ll be MUCH less liberal when it happens to you.

    1. So make it follow them for 10 years so they can’t get another job and get their life together. That way you can also be their NEXT victim.

  5. Too many people are in jail. Stealing a TV shouldn’t follow you around for 10 years. People want someone to pay for a crime when it happens to them, then they scream and holler about repeat offenders. You can’t have it both ways. Either they pay for the crime when it happens and you let them move on, or you can make them pay for something forever and shuts up when the person steals from you again. Maybe you should have let them rehabilitate instead of making them pay a life sentence just because they stole from you.

  6. Thanks to you and the Senate for passing this bill and thanks to you for sending this important summary that fills in the context in MA and in the nation so well.
    I look forward to more good progress in criminal justice reform.

  7. That’s still fairly low. In comparison with civil law, $2000 is the limit for filing small claims, which many practitioners think should be raised to $3000 or $5000, as in other states.

  8. I believe in second chances. If someone has changed their life for the better they should be given a chance to let the mistakes that were made in their past be forgiven.

  9. Good Job! You are correct in your assessment that the limit for Felony charges should be higher that $1,500. but as you said, it’s a step in the right direction. Many people who don’t know any one in the criminal justice system would not believe the obstacles those who are in the system face. Yes. They are there for a reason; but once they have “paid their debt to society”, as the saying goes, former criminals have so many other obstacles on their way back to really, hopefully paying their debt back to society by being productive human beings.

    Thanks for your work!

  10. I think you’ve made a good case, Will, so I’ll quiblle only with one point. You write: “Our incarceration rates are roughly 5 times what they were in the 70s…” But if crime rates are lower than in the 70s (as statistics generally indicate), maybe the incarceration rates should get the credit, not the blame.
    I’m also pretty sure the criminal justice system is no place to seek “healing”. Binding the wound, perhaps; staunching the bleed, at the outside, but “petty theives” find themselves on the receiving end of a prison sentence for a good reason: they’ve been found guilty of thievery (“petty” thievery if it happens to someone else). Besides, aren’t they often stealing to support a drug habit? Makes them sound a little less like little lambs lost in the woods.
    Let’s not condemn someone to a lifetime as an outcast for one offense, by all means. But let’s not endanger society by making the welfare of convicted criminals our first priority.

    1. Fair point.

      Nationally, the research suggests that the drop in crime has a lot of other things behind it and that our high incarceration rates are not that big a part of the dynamic.

      It’s a judgment call, but I do think the high incarceration rates have gone too far.

      But remember that this bill doesn’t change incarceration materially in practice. It’s about how long it takes to live down a crime.

  11. Finally, Now we can steal lots more stuff. Thanks!
    Kind of like a COLA for thieves.

    1. Really not a fair read of what we have done.

      They still will face in practice the same punishments, including incarceration.

      The issue is how long they have to stay out of trouble after they have been punished before they can put the case behind them.

      Further, the available evidence suggests that raising the thresholds has no impact on larceny crime rates.

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