By Rachel Hicks
The Virginia General Assembly is considering bills that would increase the threshold for grand larceny in hopes of reducing the number of defendants who wind up in the state’s jails.
Grand larceny, a felony that includes shoplifting or stealing property worth $200 or more, represented 6 percent of the total arrests in Rockbridge County over the past three years, according to the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office arrest log.
“It is one of the more common crimes here in Lexington,” Lexington Police Chief Sam Roman said.
Several bills were introduced early this year to change the threshold on what qualifies as grand larceny, a felony. Under current law, a theft of property worth less than $200 is a misdemeanor, and $200 and above is a felony.
Some lawmakers want the threshold raised to $500, while others want to raise it to $1,000. Advocates of raising the threshold to $500 say it would ease jail overcrowding.
Overcrowding in jails is not a new issue locally. The Rockbridge Regional Jail was designed for 40 inmates, but it consistently houses up to three times as many prisoners.
Raising the threshold may lead to fewer people behind bars, but opponents say it will give criminals a lower penalty for stealing more valuable goods.
Ginny Carter, a saleswoman at Alvin-Dennis in Lexington, said she is against raising the threshold because it would protect thieves more than storeowners.
“That would be more incentive for a thief,” she said. “They’re more protected to get a higher dollar item.”
Chris Billias, the commonwealth’s attorney for Lexington and Rockbridge, said raising the threshold on grand larceny won’t alleviate overcrowding issues in jails and prisons. He said first-time larceny offenders typically do not see jail time.
“People aren’t going to prison for grand larceny for the most part,” he said. “You need a really bad record.”
Billias said legislators are motivated by pressure to keep up with the changing times.
“We haven’t kept up with the inflation rate and cost of living increase,” he said. “[The threshold] has been $200 for a long time.”
Forty-six states have set their thresholds at $500 or more, and since 2000, at least 37 states have raised their felony theft thresholds, according to a review by Justice Forward Virginia, non-partisan political action committee.
Raising the threshold on felony theft has no impact on overall larceny rates or property crime, according to a 2017 review by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent nonprofit research organization.
States that increased their thresholds reported roughly the same average decrease in crime as those that did not change their theft laws, according to the Pew study.
The General Assembly has considered raising the threshold several times in the past.
A saleswoman at Pumpkinseeds, a gift shop in Lexington, said the proposed won’t increase petty theft because the criminals probably aren’t familiar with the law. She said she was in favor of the increase because she thinks it would address jail overcrowding.
“I don’t think these guys are reading the paper,” she said. “I think we have a lot of people that are sitting in jail that we don’t need [in jail].”