If you steal a smartphone in Oklahoma, you could be charged with a felony that stays on your record for your whole life, with all the consequences that come with it. That’s because Oklahoma’s felony theft threshold is set at $500; stealing something worth that amount or more is a felony rather than a misdemeanor. Our threshold is among the lowest both in the region and in the nation, and it means that petty crimes become lifelong barriers to productive lives. Oklahoma can and should act this year to change this by raising the threshold.
One of the key recommendations of Governor Fallin’s Criminal Justice Reform Steering Committee was raising the threshold to $1,000. That recommendation became HB 2751, which now only needs approval by the full Senate before going to the governor. It is also one provision of State Question 780, an initiative petition that would also change all drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
These efforts reflect a recognition that Oklahoma is long overdue for updating our property crime laws. As the chart below shows, Oklahoma has one of the lowest thresholds for felony property theft in the nation. Last year, Texas raised its threshold from $1,500 to $2,500 — five times higher than Oklahoma’s current level.
Oklahoma set the threshold for felony larceny at $500 in 2001. Felonies generally carry sentences of over one year in prison. However, for property theft between $500 and $1,000, the Legislature set the sentence to a term in county jail of up to one year. Essentially, property crimes in that range are currently punished as if they were a misdemeanor, but they still carry the lifelong stigma of a felony record.
During the debate over HB 2751, lawmakers expressed concerns about people circumventing punishment by writing bogus checks up to but not over the felony threshold. The bill does ensure that separate incidents adding up to more than $2,000 are a felony carrying the possibility of a prison sentence of up to 10 years. In any case, experience in other states shows that raising felony theft thresholds has no effect on rates of property crime. Across the country, states that changed their thresholds between 2001 and 2011 saw property crime drop 35 percent, while states that didn’t saw a decrease of 31 percent. Property crime and larceny rates fell in 19 of the 23 states that raised their thresholds during that time.
Because the punishment for property theft up to $1,000 does not carry a prison sentence, raising the felony threshold will not do much, if anything, to curb the state’s prison population growth. But preventing minor crimes from becoming felonies is an important step to avoiding the serious lifelong consequences of a criminal record and allowing more Oklahomans to work, pay taxes, and support their families.