Property theft is a serious offense that should be treated as such. However, Kentucky’s threshold by which theft escalates from misdemeanor to felony has not been amended in over a decade and is outdated due to inflation. Meanwhile, the state’s corrections facilities are stretched and overcrowded, with the seventh highest incarceration rate in the country—the third highest for women. It is time for lawmakers to usher in reforms to modernize our laws, more efficiently spend taxpayer money in the corrections system, and maintain public safety.
Currently, any theft over $500 is a Class D felony, which carries a sentence of one to five years in prison. For context, $500 is only half the cost of a new iPhone 12. House Bill 126, sponsored by Representative Ed Massey (R-Hebron), increases the felony threshold to $1,000, meaning that thefts under $1000 would generally be charged as misdemeanors, carrying a sentence of up to one year in jail. The bill also adds the ability to aggregate smaller thefts within 90 days into a felony offense and to enhance penalties for repeat offenders within five years.
The national median felony theft threshold currently sits at $1,000, the same level as many of our neighboring states—West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio. Increasing the threshold might seem like it would embolden criminals to be more aggressive and lead to an increase in thefts. However, experience from other states and research indicates the opposite. Pew Charitable Trusts, which studied crime trends in 30 states over 12 years, found that felony theft threshold increases had no impact on overall property or larceny rates; states that increased their thresholds reported roughly the same average decrease in crime as the 20 states that did not change their laws, and a state’s felony theft threshold, whether it was $500, $1,000 or over $2,000, was not correlated with its property crime and larceny rates.
This has proven true in Kentucky, too. In 2009, when Kentucky increased its felony theft threshold from $300 to $500, the state did not see an increase in thefts. To the contrary, Kentucky has actually seen a decrease in thefts in recent years, perhaps in large part due to technological advances in surveillance and security.
In addition to what the research on felony theft thresholds tells us, we also know that second chances are important. Having a felony record impedes a person’s ability to find a job, housing, and education, among other things. This can easily perpetuate a cycle of crime and poverty. Individuals who are ready to turn their lives around after completing their sentences may be held back by the barrier of their felony record in Kentucky. Reforming the law to classify most thefts under $1,000 as misdemeanors will provide a pathway for offenders to have a second chance at becoming productive members of society.
House Bill 126 passed the Kentucky House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support. Now it awaits consideration in the Senate. Raising Kentucky’s felony theft threshold will bring state law in line with surrounding states. Perhaps more importantly, the increase will reduce Kentucky prison population, as well as significant costs borne by taxpayers to incarcerate low-level theft offenders. Our limited corrections dollars are best reserved and prioritized toward more dangerous criminals. As a former prosecutor and criminal justice advocate who have worked to implement evidence based, conservative criminal justice reforms, we urge Kentucky legislators to thoughtfully consider the reforms set forth in House Bill 126 as the right policy for Kentucky.