The ACLU of Virginia and other groups are opposed to a recent bipartisan deal increasing the dollar amount at which a theft is elevated to a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
Under the deal reached last week, stealing money or property would become a felony at $500, up from the current $200.
It’s not the increase that bothers the ACLU, except that it wishes the dollar amount could be higher. The ACLU said Monday that a separate bill designed to ensure criminals pay court-ordered restitution to crime victims — which is going through the General Assembly as part of the deal to raise the felony threshold level — is a step in the wrong direction.
“If these changes are adopted, indigent defendants without the ability to pay restitution could be kept on probation indefinitely,” the ACLU and other groups said Monday. “It would also turn probation officers and judges into debt collectors. … This unjust scheme amounts to a form of debtor’s prison.”
The group also says that the move would affect minorities and women disproportionately.
Aside from the ACLU, the other groups voicing concern are Justice Forward, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Loudoun County Branch of the NAACP, NAKASEC (National Korean American Service & Education Consortium), the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, and Virginia Organizing, according to the ACLU’s news release.
But Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran termed the ACLU’s criticism “unfortunate.”
A deal that included restitution changes, Moran said, was needed to raise the felony larceny threshold, a goal of advocates that had been sought unsuccessfully for years. “They said they were going to kill it again this year unless you can agree … on restitution,” Moran said. “So now we’re going to get (changes to the larceny threshold), and that will impact on hundreds of cases and have an enormous impact on our court system.”
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Colonial Heights Republican, held a joint news conference last week on raising the felony threshold for larcenies.
Virginia’s level for felony theft — or grand larceny — is one of the lowest in the country, tied with New Jersey. It also hasn’t kept pace with inflation, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics saying that $200 in 1980 is worth $633 today. Advocacy groups have long contended that the law makes felons of too many people, putting a black mark on their criminal records and causing them to lose out on voting rights and job prospects.
One bill to raise the threshold to $500, sponsored by Sen. David R. Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, passed the Senate 36-3 on Jan. 23 and is now in the House Rules Committee. Another bill, by Del. Les R. Adams, R-Pittsylvania, passed the House Courts of Justice Committee 16-0 on Friday after lawmakers removed a provision that said it wouldn’t apply to thefts where the thief planned to sell the items.
But as part of that deal, Cox had Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, negotiate with Northam’s secretary of public safety, Moran, in recent weeks to beef up the laws on restitution to crime victims.
Bell had submitted a bill requiring that any defendant who was ordered to pay restitution to a crime victim would be put on “indefinite probation” until the amount is paid off, though a judge could also remove the person from probation.
Under a substitute bill put forth last week, the defendant wouldn’t be put on “indefinite probation” but still could face 10 years of hearings on whether they were adequately keeping up with their mandated payments.
Moreover, a judge would have the authority to lock a person up for 60 days at a time for failure to pay the restitution, holding that person in contempt.
Bell’s measure passed the House 79-20 on Monday.
Another bill, also from Bell, would fund two state employees to find victims who are owed restitution. Bell’s bills stem from a crime commission study that found more than $230 million in restitution was owed to victims but had not been paid. He also cited a report from Richmond-area TV station WRIC, which found that $8 million in restitution was collected but not delivered victims.
Moran said that Bell wanted to fix problems with restitution, and “really wanted to give judges” more authority to fix the problem. But Bell’s original language calling for “indefinite probation” was “a show stopper for us.”
“We didn’t want a lifetime of probation,” Moran said. So the compromise deal is to cap the hearings at 10 years — and give the judge the ability to hold someone in contempt for nonpayment.
“We wanted to craft a bill to get the defendant before a judge,” Moran said. But a probation violation, he said, has lots of negative repercussions on a defendant. “So this gives the judge that hammer, but is not a violation of probation.” At the very first hearing, Moran said, a judge can determine that someone can’t afford to make restitution, “and can bring it to an end.”
Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749.