The Impact of Felony Larceny Thresholds on Crime in New England
Criminal justice reform has been a high-priority policy area in New England and the nation in recent years. States are generally seeking legislation that would help reintegrate ex-offenders into society while still prioritizing the welfare of all members of the public and the achievement of fiscal goals. The research findings presented in this report indicate that raising felony larceny thresholds—that is, increasing the dollar value of stolen property at or above which a larceny offense may be charged in court as a felony rather than a misdemeanor, a policy adopted by three New England states over the last decade—seems to balance these objectives. Policymakers interested in criminal justice reform should consider incorporating felony larceny threshold increases into the suite of policy changes implementing such reform.
When assessing larceny incidents as a whole, this report concludes that enacting higher felony larceny thresholds does not lead to an escalation of crime in the short run. Even upon considering the subset of larceny incidents where escalation is most likely to occur and where analysis is potentially not affected by other concurrent changes in larceny penalties, this report finds only a small, 2 percent short-run increase in the intensity of larceny crime (value of stolen property) and still no increase in the amount of larceny crime (rate of occurrence).
Continuing to focus on the aforementioned subset of larceny incidents, this study shows that in the long run, raising larceny thresholds causes a decrease in larceny crime (2 percent in intensity and 13 percent in amount) in areas where, after the higher thresholds have been enacted, the capacity for wage increases for offenders is high. This decrease in crime is seemingly due to the offenders’ improved criminal histories, assuming that the raised thresholds led to fewer felony convictions. Conversely, in areas where there is less scope for such post-enactment wage increases, the report finds an increase in the amount of larceny crime (19 percent) after felony larceny thresholds are raised. Descriptive analysis also suggests that prison admissions per incident, average prison time served per incident, and the number of offenders in prison custody all appear to decline in the short run following enactment, and likewise they exhibit declines in the long run, with the exception of average time served. However, although racial gaps in these outcomes shrink in the short run, such narrowing does not persist in the long run.
A cost-benefit analysis of raising larceny thresholds suggests that even in areas with less scope for post-enactment wage increases, the cost that would be incurred by a state due to larceny crime escalation is likely exceeded by the benefit that would accrue to the state from incarceration savings. Further research and some legislative caution remains warranted until more is known about the causal impact of larceny threshold policy on incarceration outcomes, as well as the differential causal effects on incarceration for offenders across demographic groups. Nevertheless, the collective evidence in this study suggests that public policies that raise felony larceny thresholds are likely to provide benefits to state governments, ex-offenders, and non-offenders in New England.
Analysis and findings featured in this research report are derived from the technical working paper “Punishment and Crime: The Impact of Felony Conviction on Criminal Activity,” Research Department Working Paper 20-1.