Story by Ryland Barton, Kentucky Public Radio, additional information added by Laker Country News Director Zac Oakes
The Kentucky House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would raise the bar for what counts as felony theft in the state.
Under current law, stealing anything worth more than $500 in Kentucky can be charged as a Class D felony, meaning it is punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years, a fine and revocation of civil rights.
Anyone in Kentucky who has been convicted of a felony in Kentucky is stripped of their right to vote, hold office and own a gun for life.
But under House Bill 126, the felony theft threshold would rise to $1,000.
Rep. Ed Massey, a Republican from Hebron and the bill’s sponsor, said the current threshold is too low and hurts people’s chances of leading normal lives.
“A felony designation can certainly impact somebody’s ability to find adequate or suitable employment, it can affect somebody’s ability to support their family,” Massey said.
Kentucky currently has one of the lowest standards in the nation for what counts as felony theft.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections estimated the bill could save the state about $4 million per year in corrections costs.
The legislature has considered the measure for years, but pushback from police, prosecutors and judges has prevented its passage.
Last year, an almost identical version of the bill passed out of the House but wasn’t taken up by the Senate before the legislative session was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. John Blanton, a Republican from Salyersville and former Kentucky State Police major, said he is concerned the bill would create more crime victims.
“Believe it or not, not everyone who commits these thefts are dumb. They’ll calculate how much something is worth and they’ll try to stay below that felony threshold,” Blanton said. “We’re going to make it harder for my local True Value hardware owner who is hit constantly with crimes of shoplifting, we’re going to make it harder on him to be able to prosecute somebody.”
The bill also creates new ways to criminally charge people who steal. A person could be charged with felony theft if they steal more than $1,000 worth of property over a 90-day period.
Also, a person convicted of three theft-related Class A misdemeanors in five years would have their punishment enhanced to a Class D felony.
Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville, said the bill would allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes.
“It allows those resources, that are very scarce, to focus on the more serious crimes that endanger the livelihoods and the physical bodies of our constituents,” Nemes said.
The bill passed the House with a vote of 63-24 and can now be considered by the Senate.
Rep. Josh Branscum from Russell County voted in favor of the bill.