Northam, Republicans announce compromise on felony threshold

Published: Feb. 8, 2018 at 4:23 PM EST
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Virginia is poised to soften penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items after a compromise announced by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican lawmakers.

The governor and Republican leaders outlined a deal Thursday that would raise the state's felony theft threshold from $200 to $500.

Virginia has kept its felony bar at $200 since 1980 and is tied with New Jersey for the lowest in the country. Most other states have raised the dollar minimum for felony charges to keep pace with inflation.

"This is a compromise," Northam said. "We think it's an important step."

Republicans have been split on raising the threshold. The GOP-held Senate has approved raising it to $500, but House Republicans have traditionally blocked it.

GOP Del. Rob Bell said he's still skeptical of raising the threshold but was willing to accept the compromise in exchange for Northam's support to overhaul how the state collects and pays out criminal restitution.

"The restitution collection system in Virginia is and has been a disgrace," Bell said.

As part of the compromise, Northam will support GOP-legislation that was previously vetoed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The bills are designed to put new checks in place to ensure criminals pay their ordered restitution and victims are paid back what they lost.

The legislation still needs to pass both chambers and be signed by Northam before becoming law.

This was the second compromise announced by Northam and GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox this week, with the first involving a pilot program aimed at reducing outdated state regulations.

Northam frequently touted his ability to work with lawmakers in both parties on last year's campaign trail. His biggest test on compromise, passing Medicaid expansion through a GOP-controlled General Assembly that's traditionally opposed it, remains. Northam said there have been "very productive discussions" on the issue.

The deal includes a package of five bills, including, in addition the bill to raise the threshold, two bills (HB484) introduced by Delegate Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) and Senator Obenshain (R-Rockingham) to ensure that restitution ordered by the courts is collected from defendants, and two bills (HB483) to ensure that that restitution that has been collected is finally delivered to crime victims.

“This compromise is a key breakthrough for commonsense criminal justice reform,” said Governor Northam. “Raising the felony larceny threshold will maintain Virginia’s tough position on criminal theft, while modernizing our law so that one mistake does not define a person’s entire life. I want to thank members of my team and leaders on both sides for proving yet again that Virginia is a place where we come together to get things done.”

The bills to ensure restitution came after a WRIC report found that $8 million in restitution was collected from defendants, but never delivered to the crime victims. According to Virginia's Crime Commission, over $230 million in restitution is still owed to victims across Virginia.

“I am pleased with this package, as it incorporates two critical policy goals,” said Senator Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Courts of Justice. “The victims of crime don’t have a large lobbying firm advocating on their behalf. By ensuring they will receive the restitution they deserve, including the millions collected that have gone unclaimed, we’re standing up for their interests. With the felony for threshold having been last modified in 1980, raising it nearly 40 years later is the right thing to do.”