“Virginia’s threshold for classifying a larceny as a felony is $200. This threshold was first set in 1980, almost 40 years ago. What one could buy with $200 in 1980 now costs over $500. The reality that a Virginian could face one to five years in jail for stealing a smartphone is disproportionate to the crime committed.”
So argued Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate, during last year’s race for governor. Gillespie was correct — as are the many others around the state who insist that Virginia should raise the dollar amount for felony larceny.
Yet lawmakers have refused to do so, time and again. (A bill to raise the threshold to $500 passed a Senate committee on Monday. But the same thing happened last year, too — to no avail.) Some don’t want to give thieves a “cost of living adjustment,” as Del. Rob Bell once put it. Others, who are justifiably sympathetic to the plight of retailers, think the low bar deters shoplifting. (That seems doubtful; most shoplifters probably don’t check the Code of Virginia before taking a five-finger discount.)
As Gillespie noted, raising the threshold does not really raise the bar for felony theft: It simply maintains the same value that was set nearly four decades ago.
By contrast, the failure to account for inflation gradually lowers the felony bar over time. Consider: By 1985, inflation had eroded the buying power of the dollar by almost 25 percent. Two hundred dollars in 1985 was the equivalent of $153.72 just five years before. (In other words, you’d have to spend $200 in 1985 to get the same basket of goods that would have cost less than $154 in 1980.)
By 1995, $200 held the same value as just $108.46 in 1980.
By 2005, $200 had the same buying power as $85.04 in 1980.
Today, $200 will buy only as much as $67.52 would have bought in 1980.
If lawmakers do nothing, they are not holding the felony threshold steady — they are actually lowering it. Before long, that $200 will be worth only one-quarter of what it was in 1980: a mere $50.
Virginia law still distinguishes between petit larceny and felony larceny. But through their inaction, legislators are allowing the category of petit larceny to disappear. How many of them think that makes any sense at all?