The House Judiciary committee is scheduled to hear a bill sponsored by Representative Ed Massey, House Bill (HB) 126, on Wednesday, February 3. HB 126 would increase the threshold at which stealing something of value becomes a felony. Changing the felony threshold to $1,000 from the current level of $500 could reduce the number of people held in our overcrowded county jails and the corresponding costs to individuals, their families and our correctional system.
Rising incarceration in jails is widely recognized as a problem for the health of communities, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic as jails have become vectors of spread in communities. Raising the threshold would result in fewer people being detained, shorter stays in jail, and over time could help to slow the growth in incarceration in Kentucky, which currently ranks 7th highest in the nation. Kentucky’s current felony theft threshold level has not been adjusted to account for inflation, and is lower than the threshold in all but three other states.
Bill would change level at which low-level theft and fraud become felonies
Under current law, if an individual steals an item valued at $500 (roughly the cost of a cell phone), they can be charged with a Class D felony, which carries a potential sentence of 1-5 years, to be served in a local jail. Theft in an amount below $500 is a misdemeanor, which carries a potential sentence of up to a year in jail. HB 126 makes theft under $1,000 a misdemeanor. The bill also provides that if a person is convicted of stealing items valued at between $501 and $999 on 3 different occasions within a 5-year period, the 3rd offense would be a Class D felony rather than a misdemeanor. In addition, 2 or more separate offenses within 90 days can be combined and treated as a single offense (with the value of the property being aggregated).
HB 126 would also increase the threshold for several fraud-related crimes to $1,000, some of which currently have amounts as low as $100 for the offense to be a felony, with the same exceptions described above.
How Kentucky compares to other states
The median felony threshold among states was $1,000 as of 2017 (before several states increased their thresholds), while Kentucky’s threshold has been stuck at $500 for over a decade. Just three other states have a felony theft threshold that is $500 or less, and in two states, Wisconsin and Texas, the threshold is as high as $2,500. Raising the felony theft threshold to $1,000 would put Kentucky in line with most other states. Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — which neighbor Kentucky — all have a $1,000 threshold.
Positive impacts for individuals, families, counties and the state
There are numerous positive impacts that would result from HB 126 being passed:
- Fewer people would have felony convictions and experience the resulting cascade of collateral consequences associated with a felony record — including harms to economic security and health.
- Fewer people would be incarcerated, reducing jail overcrowding and the cost to counties and the state. In 2016, 52% of Class D felony theft cases in Kentucky were for amounts of less than $1,000.
- HB 126 could reduce jail crowding both pretrial and after sentencing. Most individuals charged with misdemeanor theft rather than felony theft are released pretrial through administrative release without having to pay money bail to get out of jail, so charging fewer people with felonies and more with misdemeanors will reduce the number of people held before trial. In addition, those charged with misdemeanor theft serve less time post-conviction than those charged with felony theft, again reducing the number of people being held. Many of our county jails are severely overcrowded, which results in poor quality of life for incarcerated individuals including unsafe conditions that facilitate the spread of COVID-19.
- The overall decrease in the time individuals are incarcerated should financially benefit both counties and the state. Counties pay the costs of pretrial incarceration, which can drag on for months in felony cases, while the state only begins paying once an individual is sentenced with a felony conviction. Since individuals charged with a misdemeanor are typically not detained pretrial, and since sentences are usually shorter for misdemeanors (which counties also pay for) counties would save money overall. Likewise, if the offense is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, the state would not be responsible for payments after sentencing occurs. These savings can be achieved without compromising public safety, as research shows that when states increase their felony theft thresholds, they have not seen increases in crime.
Increasing the felony threshold with HB 126 is a commonsense change that would move us one step toward reduced incarceration and relief for our overcrowded jails.