Legal Money Illusion

The state of Virginia is raising the financial threshold for defining a theft as a felony for the first time in almost four decades. Virginia’s experience highlights a peculiarity of American criminal law that results in petty criminals in many states being charged and punished as if they were big-time criminals.

For property crimes such as theft or vandalism, states set financial thresholds that are intended to differentiate low-level crimes chargeable as misdemeanors from more serious offenses chargeable as felonies. In Virginia, the legislature in 1980 defined theft as a felony if the property stolen was worth more than $200. Because of inflation, more and more petty thefts that were originally defined as misdemeanors became felonies with each subsequent year. In 2017, someone who shoplifted a $240 pair of eyeglasses that would have cost only $80 in 1980 would be charged as a felon — even though that was not the law’s original intent. A felony charge can result in a petty criminal receiving a prison term, being barred from many occupations and in some states losing the right to vote.

Virginia is raising its felony standard to $500.

That is from Keith Humphreys at WaPo, note that Alaska uses indexing.


Theft and vandalism are no more just "property crimes" than "emotional support animals" are just pets.
Alaska is different.

Shop lifters are being careful to not steal more at one time than the limit between a ticketable misdemeanor and a felony. Store security have even observed shop lifters using a calculator to make sure they didn't exceed the limit.

The US Dollar is a "Rubber-Ruler" which changes radically over time due to inflation.

It is a very unstable benchmark or measurement tool for any long term application.

The "Legal Illusion" here is really a false belief in the long term stability of the Dollar as a legal benchmark for formally assessing crime & punishment.

Inflation confuses most people -- including lawyers and economists.

Inflation is inexorable and affects all currencies.

Bad idea. We did this in California and it means criminals are emboldened and cops care less. Car crime up in SF. More petty theft

You subscribe to the bogus "broken window" theory Harun, or just like to keep the riff-raf in prison?

Bonus trivia: in low physical crime areas/ countries, you often have high property crimes, in a sort of inverse relationship, check out this observation yourself next time you check crime stats.

You're just phoning it in today Ray. What is bogus about the broken window theory? It is supported by a reasonable amount of actual evidence.

As for your trivia, I find it hard to be polite to that. I have been to Japan and guess what? It does not have high property crimes. I have been to nice parts of London and guess what? They did not have high property crimes. I have been to not nice parts of London and guess what? They had high levels of property crime and high levels of physical violence. As does Detriot, Baltimore etc etc etc.

@SMFS -Broken Windows is wrong, see:

As for my 'inverse relationship between physical crime and property crime' the relationship is between countries not within countries, but, to avoid a needless debate, I will concede this point to you, maybe I'm wrong.

Your reference does NOT prove the BrokenWindowFallacy wrong -- it's merely a very brief, superficial essay that disparages the BrokenWindowFallacy because the author feels there is insufficient evidence to prove it correct.

You seem to be unfamiliar with the details of the BrokenWindowFallacy, as originally presented by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson.

It's not only VA. Every day, Fun City (NYC) is getting more fun.

Mayor DiBlasio recently ordered police to stop arresting subway customers for jumping turnstiles.

Construction of the Second Avenue line cost $1 billion per mile. Subway fares are insufficient to paying NYCTA operating expenses much less capital costs. .

Who benefits from easing penal codes? Voters? On who's side are elected officials?

People keeping using the word "progressive." I don't think it means what they think it means. .

Why should turnstile jumping be an arrestable offense (as opposed to a ticketable one)? The amount of money involved in puny and the mechanics of an arrest eat up a rather significant portion of time-- during which the police could be more gainfully employed in more serious matters.

Why should turnstile jumping be an arrestable offense (as opposed to a ticketable one)?

Because it's generative of a sense of disorder and thus of more serious crimes. Same with squeegie pests.

You are arguing for making it a crime of some sort, and I agree, However for prudential reasons (our resources are not infinite; the nature of the offense is trivial) it males far more sense for it to be a ticketable offense than an arrestable one. Ditto with squeegie pests (whom I dislike quite a lot too)

How does arresting help vs ticketing? Think before assuming it's all an evil liberal conspiracy.

Um, taxpayers in general? Busting someone costs a large multiple of the fare, not to mention the opportunity cost of not busting someone doing something far less harmless.

If it was a bad idea now it was a bad idea originally. If you want another discussion about what the appropriate value to warrant a felony, then have it--otherwise index it to inflation.

Really there should be a different limit for shop-lifting compared to other forms of theft. Smash and grab has so much higher economic and social cost. Almost any amount should be a felony.

In the case of smash-and-grab add the vandalism costs to the theft costs.

What Virginia needs is more petty crime.

What we are seeing is the purple-ling of a formerly sensible state. Democrat voters made Washington DC uninhabitable. Democrat voters from all over get pulled into DC for the parasitic jobs for Dems programs in the Federal government. They expand out into decent places like Virginia. And then they proceed to ruin those places too. See Colorado.

What Virginia needs is a public education campaign to explain to people why they are moving from Blue states to Red states and what makes Red states worth moving to.

So back in 1980 when Virginia set 200$ as the felony limit, it was even more purple than today? $200 in 1980 is worth $637 today.

Democrat voters made Washington DC uninhabitable.

The homicide rate in DC has declined by more than 75% in the last 25 years and half the city's population lives in neighborhoods where it's close to zero. Greater Washington is quite inhabitable, which is why the real estate therein is so bloody expensive.

News flash: not only is DC habitable, despite being the bluest entity in the nation, it has one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. Have you been out of touch for a while a la Rip Van Winkle?

I think it's great that they took the time to better-protect convicted criminals.

Nearly all the other problems in Virginia are solved already.

The unintended consequences of dysgenics is that you start to fill up your jails and clog your court system.

...and another consequence is that my subject and verb don't agree. :-D

I'm not worried. Genetic engineering will change everything.

As a retailer, I'm going to use this opportunity to rant against the legal system's treatment of shoplifters. My problem? Even when caught, shoplifters face only minor punishment. They plead out to a short probation. I guess the jails are too full of drug offenders.

My humane, just, and inexpensive solution: When a convicted shoplifter enters a retail store, he/she must wear a sign around his/her neck, "I am a convicted shoplifter", for a period of a couple years. A convicted shoplifter caught without his/her sign would face incarceration.

Is it possible that computer vision will make that unnecessary in the coming years?

Large retailers having a shared database of shoplifters, if not relying on court records. Cameras at entrances identify them through face recognition software and automatically alert security staff?

Given 'em two weeks in jail and some time in the pillory. Or a good caning.

I would send them all to jail.

Jail is expensive. Some people must be locked up of course, but bear in the mind that when you incarcerate someone you are also picking the taxpayers' pockets.

No, you're not picking anyone's pocket, any more than you are when you house people in nursing homes. New York spends about 0.4% of the state's domestic product on the state prison system. We can afford that.

How does Humphreys know that wasn't the intent? It is possible to write a law that is relatively innocent now -- and so will not be controversial -- and yet binds more tightly over time -- which is the legislative body's true goal.

Sort of the opposite of the minimum wage (non-indexed).

which is the legislative body’s true goal.

The legislative body's true goal is to not have to think about the math involved in indexing.

The standard for felony should be more like $5000. $500 is a phone.
Going by old western standards where the theft of someones horse was a hanging offense, felony should be set at a reasonable price for a decent car. No less than $3000 IMO.

$500 is a handgun. And, in California, stealing one worth under the $950 threshold will get you a ticket.

We could probably define theft of a firearm as a felony independently of the cost of the gun.

IHMO we should reduce punishment and add more and better police to increase chance of getting caught. It seems like we err to much on both sides.

Save money on jail, prison, court costs and spend it on more and better police and yes I understand that it is difficult to improve how police due to the politics and civil service and stuff. Perhaps they could experiment with pay private organizations to reduce crime.



The tragicomedy of crime in the US is that we have the means to invest in policing. We lack the policy smarts and the cojones.

Massively expand policing and eliminate incarceration for almost all nonviolent crime. Make the chance of getting caught >90% and make the punishment humiliating and socially useful (trash pick up, whatever). And then forgive and “forget.” Let the person have another shot at a normal life and a normal job.

Make the expected benefit of crime negative in the short run, which is how a person that gets into crime thinks.

eliminate incarceration for almost all nonviolent crime.


It's cheaper. And there's good research out there that shows that the likelihood of getting caught is far more a deterrent than the severity of the punishment.

It was nice living in a safer country for a few decades. Part of it was a statistical fabrication (more old people who don't go out very often make the numbers look better without making the streets any safer), but in general things have been better. Oh well, I guess people like more excitement because nearly every public policy proposal for several years is designed to increase criminal behavior.

Virginia is raising its felony standard to $500.

Another fixed sum. I guess they haven't learned their lesson.

Even a generation ago, the threshold differentiating grand larceny from petit larceny was 2x that in New York.

I'd wager the reason you see this is that there are too many lawyers bad at math in state legislatures. Real bad at it.

So Virginia doesn't care if poor black people (who will tend to have the lowest value possessions) get robbed, but only rich white people. Why does Virginia hate poor black people?

The evolution of the penal code is commonly a manifestation of how otiose and maladroit state legislators can be. It's real simple to put these thresholds on escalators per the annual change in nominal personal income per capita. Ditto the thresholds which differentiate small claims from other torts. Real simple, but they just never get to it. They're too busy producing session laws named after some unfortunate moppet or trebling the penalties for something because it was done within 500 yards of a school or prohibiting sex offenders from living within so and so many miles of a school and discovering the only spot in a given county for that is under some highway overpass.

Why do you assume that they are being maladroit rather than calculating? Businesses and other victims of petty theft may prefer a lower threshold so (like the minimum wage) a threshold that declines in real terms may be a way to try to satisfy both sides.

Having stolen 60% of the value of a dollar over 40 years, what punishment is appropriate for the legislators?

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