Virginia is one of two states where people convicted of stealing items valued at $200 become felons. But a bipartisan deal to raise the threshold and improve restitution will help some people recover from an otherwise life-altering mistake, a delegate says.
The agreement announced Thursday by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would increase Virginia’s felony theft threshold – the lowest in the nation – to $500 and improve assurances that victims would receive restitution.
In a compromise Northam called a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform,” members of both parties in the General Assembly will get legislation their counterparts previously blocked.
Republicans agreed to advance bills to raise the bar for what is considered grand larceny theft. In exchange, Democrats agreed to bills that would stiffen laws to give crime victims their court-ordered restitution.
Under current Virginia law, a person who steals an item valued more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny. That threshold is tied with New Jersey for the lowest in the nation, according to a 2015 report by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
“At $200, Virginia’s current felony larceny threshold is the most severe in the nation,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. “By raising it, we are sending a clear message that theft is a serious crime, but stealing one phone or pair of boots should not ruin a person’s life.”
Republicans would not have agreed to a deal on raising the threshold without changes to restitution laws, said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox. HB 483 would require the state locate victims of crimes and pay them restitution. HB 484 would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision. Both were introduced by Del. Robert Bell, R- Albemarle.
The Virginia ACLU, which supports raising the grand larceny threshold, is reluctant to support the agreement. Spokesperson Bill Farrar said a $500 bar – which would be the first change to the law since 1980 – would still be too low compared to inflation. Additionally, Farrar said, Bell’s legislation could put poor people in a position of being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t pay restitution.
Crime victims in Virginia’s state courts are owed more than $400 million in outstanding restitution, according to a 2016 Crime Commission report.
“This is money that crime victims need to pay their bills and rebuild their lives,” Bell said. “They have to come to court, testify under oath, and many have to describe the most frightening moment of their life to strangers, only to be cross-examined and scrutinized in the media. The least we can do is ensure that they receive the restitution that the justice system promises to them.”