If you steal a $400 iPhone in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Rhode Island, you’re guilty of petty theft, a misdemeanor punishable by not more than one year in jail. But if you steal that same iPhone in Massachusetts, you’re guilty of grand larceny — a felony punishable by up to five years in state prison.
Why is Massachusetts so much stricter? It is because our lawmakers haven’t gotten around to updating the felony theft threshold since 1987, when the Legislature raised it from $100 to $250.
Amending a law in favor of thieves isn’t a politically popular thing to do. So the law has been left unchanged all these years. Inflation has made it inadvertently tougher. That’s unfair, considering that $250 in 1987 is worth more than $500 today.
Massachusetts appears to be one of only a tiny handful of states in the country with a felony theft threshold so low. In Florida and Illinois, it’s $300. In Virginia and New Jersey, it’s $200. Nearly every other state has a threshold of $500 or higher. Indeed, 30 states — including Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut — have felony theft thresholds of $1,000 or more.
The good news is that Massachusetts courts tend to ignore the threshold, at least when it comes to first-time offenders. Defendants without criminal records often get pretrial probation, and avoid incarceration and the felony charge if they stay out of trouble.
But people with prior offenses may not get treated the same way. If they don’t get cut the same slack, they end up with a felony conviction and have a much harder time getting a job or an education in the future. Their criminal record will be more easily accessible than it would be if they’d only been convicted of a misdemeanor, according to Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
“Any time you are charged with a felony rather than a misdemeanor, the consequences are more harsh,” he said.
A host of other consequences can flow from felony convictions. For instance, green card holders can be refused reentry into the United States. And in Florida, felons are barred from voting or holding public office for the rest of their lives, unless they go through a special process to have their rights restored.
There’s also a financial rationale for increasing the threshold. Before Nebraska raised its felony theft threshold to $1,500, the state spent about $8.5 million a year incarcerating people found guilty of stealing goods worth between $500 and $1,500, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which advises states on how to spend their criminal justice funds more efficiently. Even though the number of such cases was small — just 175 inmates — each one cost the state an average of $48,500 per year. The center, which is also studying Massachusetts’ justice system, may find a similar situation here.
But it doesn’t take a deep analysis of data to know that Massachusetts ought to raise its felony threshold to $600 — or better yet, $1,000. All it takes is common sense, and an understanding of inflation. Furthermore, since Massachusetts lawmakers haven’t felt compelled to update it since Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office, they shouldn’t be trusted to update it in the future. The felony theft threshold should adjust automatically every five years, tied to inflation.