Massachusetts may soon fall in line with the majority of U.S. states that have changed their approach to prosecuting theft in recent years, by increasing the dollar threshold for which larceny is considered a felony.
The level at which any new floor would be set remains in question as House and Senate negotiators begin work on settling differences between two versions of a sweeping criminal justice overhaul.
The issue largely pits those who favor a more progressive approach to sentencing against retailers who fear greater losses from theft.
Under current state law, stealing property valued at more than $250 is considered a felony and can result in prison time. Larceny of $250 or less is considered a misdemeanor, which could still bring a jail sentence but is more often subject to probation, or lighter punishment.
Only two states, Virginia and New Jersey, have a lower felony larceny threshold, $200, than Massachusetts. More than 30 states, including the rest of New England, set thresholds at $1,000 or higher, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The $250 threshold has been in effect in Massachusetts since 1987 and is low enough to make the theft of a winter coat, video game console or a pair of pricier sunglasses a felony, leaving a mark on a person’s record that could hinder employment options for years.
“With young people, they grow up poor and they make mistakes,” said Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI and Re-entry Project for Greater Boston Legal Services, and an advocate for the change.
People with addiction sometimes steal to support their drug habits, and the larceny threshold can be an obstacle to people trying to stay sober and turn their lives around, Quirion added.
“Having a felony on your record is a big deal, and you are probably going to go in that file where you are rejected” for job openings, she said.
In Massachusetts, prospective employers checking an applicant’s background can look back ten years for felony convictions, but only five years for misdemeanors.
The Senate criminal justice bill passed in October calls for a sixfold increase in the felony threshold to $1,500, which would put Massachusetts among the 12 highest states. The Senate rejected, on a 22-15 vote, a Republican amendment calling for a lower, $1,000 threshold.
A House panel initially recommended a $750 floor, but the full House later voted 118-37 to set it at $1000.
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, representing thousands of store owners, contends the change proposed by the House and particularly the higher floor in the Senate would only encourage more theft.
“At the current felony threshold level of $250, Massachusetts retailers already experience significant losses due to theft with an estimated $1 billion in merchandise stolen from their stores annually – a cost ultimately paid for by honest consumers,” the association said in a statement this week.
It is not young shoplifters, but organized retail crime carried out by seasoned thieves that generally hit stores the hardest, the group added.
“These are not kids making mistakes but professionals making a conscious decision to steal. For such bad actors, increasing the felony threshold only incentivizes their behavior and reduces their risk of conviction,” the statement read.
The impact on crime rates of raising the threshold is disputed. A 2016 report by the Pew Research Center found no effect on property crimes or larceny rates in 23 states that raised their thresholds between 2001 and 2011.
Nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys suggested in an earlier letter to legislative leaders that a new felony threshold of $750 be set and argued that the proposed $1,500 threshold in the Senate bill could hurt small businesses and low-income households.