Activists claim reducing sentences for theft results in... less theft?

Criminal justice reform is a big topic this election season, particularly among the Democrats. It’s true beyond a doubt that the United States locks up a lot of criminals and it’s a worthwhile discussion to have, particularly in terms of low level drug crimes. One study from Pew Research is going after a different subject however, and looks at the rate of incarceration for theft. It’s important to note up front that most of the states treat theft of property differently based on the value of what is stolen. Major, big ticket thefts are set up as felonies and can result in a significant stretch in prison for the offender. Small, low dollar heists are lesser offenses and may result in some time cooling your heels in the local jail if you’re locked up at all.

The Pew study goes one step further, however, and suggests that if we stop prosecuting so many people for serious theft, the crime rates may actually go down. Wait… what? (Route Fifty)

One common policy change in the wave of reforms has been a re-evaluation of the way states punish low-level theft offenders. Since 2001, at least 30 geographically and politically diverse states—from Arizona to Vermont and Alabama to Oregon—have raised the value of stolen money or goods needed to prosecute theft as a felony, rather than as a misdemeanor. (Felonies typically carry sentences of a year or more in state prison; misdemeanors generally result in probation or less than a year in a local jail.)

Lawmakers have raised these sums, known as “felony theft thresholds,” to focus limited state prison space on more serious offenders and ensure that value-based theft penalties take inflation into account. A threshold of $500 enacted in 1986, for example, amounts to nearly $1,100 in today’s dollars…

In some states, threshold changes have sparked fears that crime will go up. Retailers and other critics have cautioned that higher thresholds might embolden offenders and cause theft rates, in particular, to rise. However, new research from The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that these concerns, while understandable, are misguided.

Something sounds off here, or at least highly counterintuitive. I do agree that the threshold for felony theft probably needs to keep up with the times. If the break point was $1,000 in the eighties, that was worth a lot more than it is today, so reducing it a bit is likely in order. But by doing that are you actually going to reduce the number of thefts? Color me dubious.

The article cites statistics showing that states which raised the felony theft dollar threshold, “cut their property crime and theft rates by roughly the same amount.” That sounds amazing, doesn’t it? If you need to steal $2,000 worth of goods before it’s a felony, less people steal things! How did nobody think of this before?

Enough sarcasm. Perhaps the more obvious answer is that thieves who are in the habit of stealing good worth $1,200 are still doing it at the same rate but they’re just not being prosecuted for felonies anymore. In the lower level court cases they might even be more likely to get off with probation or something rather than going to prison. Did anyone think of that?

But all we really need to do is examine the question with an ear toward a bit of common sense. If you decrease the penalties for any particular criminal activity, how likely do you think it will be that potential criminals will hesitate more before committing crime? This is the opposite of deterrence in every sense of the word. You are instilling less fear of retribution from society in those considering such crimes and making their decision all the easier. The idea that they’ll suddenly turn around and go home is a bit beyond the boundaries of common sense.

A discussion on criminal justice reform is long overdue and there’s progress to be made, but let’s not get silly about it. Some crimes may indeed need to have their sentences reduced, but don’t pretend that such reforms will make criminals feel more civic obligation as a result.