Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Should a $50 Theft Really Be A Felony?

The nation's poor economy continues to cause people to rethink criminal justice policy. This is probably a good thing. What was once unthinkable, such as questioning the wisdom of harsh prison sentences for minor drug offenses, is now being discussed in many circles. Even staunch law and order conservatives are wondering if the cost of incarceration is worth the huge sums of money it takes to clothe, house and feed prisoners convicted of minor offenses.

There's a story over at USA Today that indicates some states that are reconsidering the felony classification of certain property crimes in order to save money by prosecuting these crimes as misdemeanors.

State officials and criminal justice analysts said budget crises have forced state lawmakers, sometimes at political risk, to enact less punitive measures for criminal offenders. "Clearly one of the motivating factors is cost," said Alison Shames, associate director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections for the Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy group. "States are looking at the numbers of people in prison for property crimes and asking themselves a simple question: Does everybody really need to be there?"

Of course, the unspoken secret is that many of these "felony" offenses aren't really being punished as felony offenses. In the sleepy little burg where I work it's not unusual to see probation being handled out for second and third offenses of Burglary Of A Habitation which here in Texas is a second degree felony. For reference, Murder is a first degree felony.

I guess if you call it a second degree felony but the offender never makes it to the state prison then the lawmakers can call themselves tough on crime without actually having to write the check to pay for it. The offender gets a felony on his record and the county gets to pick up the cost of prosecuting said felon and housing him in the county lockup until he gets sentenced to probation.

And here in Texas we love to classify offenses as felonies even if we don't punish them like they're felonies. By some counts we're already up to over 2,000 felony offenses on the books. Maybe one day we'll rethink how we classify offenses and actually have a little truth in sentencing. Severe where it needs to be, but reasonable where it should be.

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