Most places in the United States aren’t known for being “soft” on crime. In fact, sentences for criminals have increased steadily in recent years despite decreases in crime.
But lower crime rates don’t motivate politicians to change the penalties for crimes. Safety and concern for the public are rarely the motivating factors. Case in point: a number of states are lowering the penalties for felony property crimes due to cost considerations.
Sure, stealing will still be illegal but the standard for committing a felony has been increased substantially in many states. In Illinois, for example, the legislature doubled the financial loss necessary (from $150 to $300) before a burglary is considered a felony. In other words, a burglar in Illinois can take up to $300 worth of goods from a home before that crimes reaches a felony status.
There are substantial differences between misdemeanors and felonies. When a burglar is convicted of a misdemeanor, they serve less time in a less secure facility, like county jails. When burglars are convicted of a felony, they might end up in a state penitentiary serving many years.
To be fair, lower penalties for property crime does make sense in some states. In Oregon, for example, criminals only need to steal $50 for a property crime to be considered a felony. This threshold makes little sense when it costs, on average, $62 a day to keep a prisoner in a state institution.
Cost seems to be the motivating factor for the changes. As state budgets grow tighter under a strained economy, many jurisdictions are looking for ways to save money.
“‘Clearly one of the motivating factors is cost,” said Alison Shames, an expert on sentencing and corrections for the Vera Institute of Justice. “States are looking at the numbers of people in prison for property crimes and asking themselves a simple question: Does everybody really need to be there?'”
A Republican state senator in Montana, Jim Shockley, said that penalties for property crimes need to be more humane, especially for poor defendants.
“One public cost that people don’t think much about is the practical effect of convicting non-violent offenders as felons. Once a person has a felony record, the chances of finding future employment are essentially shot.”
The new laws represent the first substantial changes to American property crime law in the past 50 years. States lowering penalties for certain property crimes include Delaware, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Delaware, California, and Illinois.