If you steal an iPhone in Texas, you’ll be charged with a misdemeanor and
receive a sentence of up to a year in county jail; but if you steal an iPhone in
Illinois, you’ll be charged with a felony and face up to five years in prison.
The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform
recommended raising the felony theft threshold to $2,000 from $500 in a Jan. 10
report. This was the second report the commission released with suggestions on
how to reduce Illinois’ prison population 25 percent by 2025, per Gov. Bruce
Rauner’s executive order.
House Bill 3337, which was introduced Feb. 22, would make good on the
commission’s recommendation by increasing the felony theft threshold to $2,000.
Why Illinois needs to make good on prison population reduction
Illinois’ criminal justice system is failing people – crime victims, taxpayers
and ex-offenders alike. The state spent $1.4 billion on the Illinois Department
of Corrections, or IDOC, in 2014, not including pay and benefits for all
workers. The results don’t match the investment: Nearly half of ex-offenders
return to prison within three years – and each instance of recidivism costs
Cycling in and out isn’t just costly in the financial sense – it also squanders
human potential. The public has a vested interest in ensuring that offenders are
rehabilitated, because 97 percent of people residing in Illinois prisons will
return to their neighborhoods. When nearly half of ex-offenders return to prison
just three years after release, it’s clear the system isn’t working.
Raising felony theft threshold doesn’t lead to increased theft
Since the commission’s report was released, critics have voiced concerns about
sending the wrong message.
“If you take away the punishment side of it, and you’re just going to slap them
on the hand, they’re more likely to come back, and there’s more people that are
going to try it for the first time,” Quincy Menards Assistant General Manager
Scott Warner said in an interview with WGEM TV.
But increasing felony theft thresholds doesn’t equate to an increase in theft.
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The Pew Charitable Trusts examined crime trends in the 28 states
that raised their felony theft thresholds between 2001 and 2011, and
issued three main findings:
- Raising the felony theft threshold has no impact on overall
property crime or larceny rates.
- States that increased their thresholds reported roughly the
same average decrease in crime as the 22 states that did not
change their theft laws.
- The amount of a state’s felony theft threshold – whether it
is $500, $1,000, $2,000, or more – is not correlated with its
property crime and larceny rates.
Compared to Illinois’ $500 trigger, 29 other states have felony
theft thresholds that are twice as high or even greater, including
states like Texas and Wisconsin, where theft below $2,500 is
generally a misdemeanor.
For effective reform, take victims into consideration
Not only does Illinois send nonviolent offenders to prison for
longer than necessary, but Illinois’ system for dealing with theft
crimes also means that even if an offender is punished, victims are
not made whole.
In addition to adjusting theft thresholds, a truly effective way to
deal with theft is to encourage additional, alternative reforms such
as restorative justice, which compensates victims for their losses.
Texas provides a great example for this type of approach, and
Illinois should follow suit. The Lone Star State offers a program
that allows offenders and victims to work together to come up with
appropriate steps to restore any losses or damages, instead of
throwing the offender into prison where he or she will have no job
and thus no means of repaying his or her debt. Offenders who go
through the Texas program have a three-year recidivism rate –
meaning, the rate at which offenders return to prison within three
years of release – of 18.6 percent. For reference, Illinois’
three-year recidivism rate is 50 percent.
Smart reform addresses not just offenders, but victims as well, and
works toward better outcomes for both parties. That starts with
ensuring people aren’t sent to prison unnecessarily or for overly
long terms, and continues with providing avenues for victims and
offenders to work together to make amends for property losses.
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