No deal

2/17/2018, 9:43 a.m.

We understand the need for compromise, but we believe Democratic Gov. Ralph S. Northam caved to the Republicans when he struck a deal last week with GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox.

The deal was to raise the dollar amount at which a theft is elevated to a felony in Virginia, rather than a misdemeanor, from $200 to $500.

Yes, we believe the felony threshold should be raised in Virginia. But it should be higher than $500. A young person’s mistake of taking someone’s cellphone or shoplifting the latest big-name sneakers or designer sunglasses can turn into a lifetime penalty with a felony record that would destroy their job prospects and voting rights.

Virginia has kept its felony threshold at $200 since 1980, while at least 37 states have raised the dollar minimum for felony charges since 2000. The felony threshold in Texas and Wisconsin is $2,500, while at least three dozen states have a felony threshold of $1,000 or more.

As several advocacy organizations have suggested, Virginia’s low felony threshold is an equal opportunity destroyer, snaring inner-city African-Americans as well as suburban white people stealing to support an opioid addiction.

As part of Gov. Northam’s deal with the Republicans, his administration is backing a bill by GOP Delegate Rob Bell of Albemarle to ensure criminal defendants pay court-ordered restitution to their victims.

Delegate Bell’s bill initially would have required the person be put on “indefinite probation” until the restitution is paid, with only a judge being able to remove the person from probation.

But according to a substitute bill that passed the House of Delegates last week, a person could face up to 10 years of hearings on whether they are keeping up with mandated restitution payments. Additionally, a judge could lock the person up for 60 days each time if they fail to make the payments.

Under the measure, Virginia’s courts would be turned into debt collectors. And such a measure would disproportionately affect women and people of color, according to the ACLU of Virginia, the Virginia Conference of the NAACP and other advocacy groups.

We agree. This bill criminalizes poverty. And we are disappointed by what Gov. Northam views as a “deal.”  

We call for clear-thinking members of the General Assembly to strike down this deal, raise the felony threshold in Virginia to at least $1,000 and let judges decide — as they do now — whether a person can afford to pay restitution.