Virginia’s felony larceny threshold will be raised from $200 to $500 under a legislative deal announced Thursday by Gov. Ralph Northam and House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox.
The agreement to raise the grand larceny threshold, the first such increase since 1980, is a bipartisan breakthrough on a long-blocked proposal. The compromise was brought about by changing Republican attitudes on criminal justice reform and Northam’s willingness to reach across the aisle by supporting a GOP victim restitution proposal that former Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed.
“This compromise today is just that. A meeting in the middle,” Northam said at a joint news conference at the Capitol. “Both sides have gotten something we fought for.”
The Republican-controlled Senate, which was already on board with reforming the felony larceny law, passed a bill raising the threshold to $500 last month on a 36-3 vote. But until Thursday, the legislation’s prospects in the House were uncertain.
Cox acknowledged that the felony larceny issue was “huge” for Democrats, but he said legislation to ensure those who commit crimes pay back their victims was “huge” for Republicans.
“I would say in the past we got neither,” Cox said. “So the positive piece is that you’re seeing a very good compromise today that will really move the ball forward.”
The felony larceny threshold increase to $500 isn’t as dramatic as many would like. In a joint news conference before the legislative session, Northam and McAuliffe called for a $1,000 threshold.
Under state law, the larceny threshold determines the severity of criminal charges for stealing. At the existing threshold, taking items worth less than $200 classifies as misdemeanor petty theft, but anything above $200 can be charged as felony larceny punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to 20 years in prison.
Democrats have called for raising the threshold for years, arguing that the low dollar figure means people’s lives can be derailed by serious charges for stealing an iPhone or a pair of sneakers. But no bill passed the House during McAuliffe’s tenure. Republicans routinely voted down the proposal, calling it a “cost-of-living increase for criminals.”
Still, the legislation drew some support from Republicans, including 2017 gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. He called for a $500 threshold and said he could help push his party away from its tough-on-crime instincts toward a more moderate approach to criminal justice.
Virginia is tied with New Jersey for having the lowest felony threshold in the country. With the increase, Virginia will join 15 other states with thresholds somewhere between $500 and $950.
The Republican-sponsored victim restitution legislation will keep criminal defendants on probation until they’ve paid back their victims and require probation agencies to monitor the status of payments.
The restitution bills were sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, one of the leading opponents of raising the grand larceny threshold. He helped negotiate the compromise with Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, a member of Northam’s Cabinet.
Speaking at Thursday’s announcement, Bell said he and his colleagues would not be agreeing to raise the felony larceny threshold if not for the “transformative” changes to the victim restitution system.
“People would just disappear off probation without having paid,” Bell said.
A 2016 State Crime Commission study found that more than $230 million was owed to Virginia crime victims but had not been paid. Another bill involved in the deal would devote more resources to locating crime victims so that they can be paid from a publicly administered compensation fund defendants pay into.
The restitution bills would allow judges to jail defendants who don’t pay their victims.
In his veto message last year, McAuliffe said the legislation “would move Virginia toward criminalizing the inability to pay restitution.”
The legislation gives courts leeway to end probation for defendants who can’t pay what they owe.
“In my view the compromise legislation balances the rights of victims with the realistic view that there will be some offenders who are simply unable to pay restitution,” Northam said.
Asked if the grand larceny threshold may be raised even higher in the future, Northam said that “we take steps here” and $500 is “the next step.”
“This took discussion from both sides of the aisle,” Northam said. “And this is what, at the end of the day, we’re comfortable with.”
Recalling the heat he took over his decision to send important bills to the Republican-dominated Rules Committee, Cox said he sent the felony larceny bills there to allow negotiations to progress behind the scenes.
“Of course I think you see the success today,” Cox said.
The criminal justice reform announcement was the second bipartisan accord this week. On Monday, Northam and Cox announced a plan to roll back state regulatory requirements by 25 percent within three years.
Asked Thursday how talks are going on Medicaid expansion — perhaps the top issue of the legislative session — Northam said he’s still optimistic there will be another bipartisan agreement near the session’s end.
“Any major piece of legislation takes time,” Northam said.