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KY Felony Theft Charges Have Lifelong Impact, Balloon Prison Population

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Since the mid-1980s, Kentucky's prison population has increased by 168%. (Adobe Stock)
Since the mid-1980s, Kentucky's prison population has increased by 168%. (Adobe Stock)
January 19, 2021

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky's felony theft threshold has remained unchanged for more than a decade, and critics say it's contributing to a rise in incarceration and prison overcrowding.

The dollar amount of property damage or theft often determines whether a person is charged with a felony. For decades, Kentucky's felony theft threshold was $300. In 2009, lawmakers bumped it up to $500.

Amanda Hall, smart justice policy strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky, said the state's felony theft laws haven't kept pace with inflation, and other criminal justice reform advocates agree.

"If you receive a theft charge and the merchandise is $500 or over, you are charged with a felony conviction," Hall confirmed. "In today's economy, that would mean a cell phone."

Recent legislation sponsored by a group of Republican lawmakers would increase the state's felony theft threshold to $1000.

Hall added felony convictions can remain on a person's record for a lifetime and lead to barriers in housing, employment and education. People with felonies are also denied the right to vote.

Felony thefts are expungeable, but under state law, a person can't apply for an expungement until at least five years after probation and parole.

Hall pointed to research showing that increasing the amount of felony charges doesn't encourage more thefts.

One 2018 study from Pew found property crime in states that increased their thresholds either fell or stayed the same. She said surrounding states have thresholds twice as high or greater.

"We can look at states like Ohio, which is $1,000, Georgia, which is $1,500, Alabama, which is $1,500, Tennessee, which is $1,000," Hall outlined.

Kentucky ranks in the top 10 nationwide for its per-capita incarceration rate, third per capita for the number of incarcerated women and second per capita for the number of children who've experienced parental incarceration.

Hall believes the state should be working on alternative ways to hold people accountable for their actions.

"As opposed to continuously just increasing our corrections budget and incarcerating people," Hall argued.

The state's Department of Corrections spends more than $600 million per year. Hall noted that amount is one of the highest expenditures in the state budget.

Disclosure: ACLU of Kentucky contributes to our fund for reporting on Criminal Justice, Immigrant Issues, Reproductive Health, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - KY