Felony theft threshold limit sparks Senate debate, headed to governor

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – A criminal justice reform bill that would raise the bar for what counts as felony theft in Kentucky is headed to the governor after passing the Senate today by a 25-11 vote.

The measure, known as House Bill 126, would raise the threshold of felony theft to $1,000. Under current law, stealing anything worth $500 or more is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, said HB 126 needed to pass so the law would reflect increased prices caused by inflation. Along with Illinois, Kentucky has the lowest felony theft threshold in the region, according to prior testimony on HB 126.

“I was working the streets back when it was $100,” said Carroll, a retired police officer. “Then it went to $300, $500 and now to $1,000. I have not always been in support of raising that number … but the reality of it is that it is time.”

Carroll praised language in the bill that addressed shoplifting rings. HB 126 would allow police to charge members of organized shoplifting rings with a felony if a member stole a total of $1,000 worth of merchandise over 90 days.

He said the bill would also not let repeat offenders off the hook. Those who had been convicted of theft less than $1,000 more than three times over five years could face felony charges under HB 126.

Sen. David Yates, D-Louisville, said he supported HB 126 because it would allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes.

“In my hometown, crime has risen dramatically,” Yates said. “We don’t have enough police officers out on the streets patrolling, working. I think we need to make sure the crimes that are felonies really do rise to that level.”

The former felony prosecutor said, however, that HB 126 in no way would decriminalize thefts of $500 or less.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton, reiterated that shoplifting items valued at $500 or less would still be a crime.

“The retail federation is not opposed to this bill,” said Westerfield, also a former prosecutor. “I’m not aware that the prosecutorial association is opposed to this bill. We are certainly not taking away the victim’s rights to be made whole.”

Sen. Tom Buford, D-Nicholasville, said he couldn’t support HB 126 because it would hurt small mom-and-pop shops. He said a $500 shoplifting theft could wipe out a small retailer’s profit for an entire month.

“If you are naive enough to think a misdemeanor means anything to a shoplifter or somebody stealing from your property then you need to vote for this bill,” Buford said sarcastically. “Let them have it. Put it in the front yard and put ‘free’ on it. Don’t worry about taking them to court.”

Sen. Michael J. Nemes, R-Shepherdsville, said he supported HB 126 because it would ease prison overcrowding and save the state money on corrections. A correctional impact statement attached to the bill estimated its passage would save the state $4 million per year in prison costs alone.

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