The theft of property valued under $1,500 would become a misdemeanor in Massachusetts under a proposal passed in the Senate and now pending before the House. MA would follow the lead of 26 other states that have adjusted their felony thresholds, yet the five-fold increase proposed in MA exceeds the average threshold level of those states, which stands at $1,000.

While research conducted by the Pew Institute claims that there has been no increase in property crime in those states where a higher felony threshold has been adopted, retailers and law enforcement in California have begun to tell a different story.

In CA, where the felony threshold was increased to $950 a year and a half ago, the measure has been described as a “virtual get-of-jail-free card” in the Washington Post, resulting in a catch and release system of justice where bad actors commit misdemeanor after misdemeanor with little to no consequences for their actions.

The L.A. Times warned of the “unintended consequences” on the state’s criminal justice system, pointing to a rise in property crime since the measure’s implementation and an inability of the courts to get offenders using theft crime to fund drug addictions into treatment without the threat of meaningful prison time.

More recently, ABC News ran a story in which retailers big and small blamed the measure for a jump in shoplifting activity at their stores. The retailers reported a 15% increase in shoplifting incidents and in some cases a doubling since the measure was adopted. These claims are supported by Los Angeles Police Department data that indicates a 25% increase in shoplifting in the first year of the measure’s implementation. In fact, state-wide reporting shows property crime increases in nine of California's 10 largest cities.

One repeat offender interviewed acknowledges that the higher threshold made it easier for him to engage in criminal activity, another said he never started stealing bikes until the threshold was increased, and yet another has been documented as carrying a calculator to ensure he didn’t exceed the $950 threshold. If low-level, self-described drug addicts are able to recognize and take advantage of the change in law, then there is no doubt that sophisticated and organized theft rings—responsible for the theft of $30 billion of merchandise nationwide—are aware as well.

RAM’s counterpart at the California Retailers Association believes the bigger problem is just that—organized retail theft rings whose members are well aware of the reduced penalties. The commander of the Los Angeles Police Department’s commercial crimes division agreed pointing out that because the law did not include any exceptions for organized retail crime rings, such offenders are “benefiting and the retailers are paying the price.”

The California experience should give lawmakers in Massachusetts pause. Before undertaking such a significant change to our criminal justice system, a long hard look at what is occurring in California is not only warranted but is owed to the private and corporate citizens in Massachusetts who will inevitably fall victim of such crimes.

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