by Kellen Squire
I’ve made no secret of the fact that, when I was in high school, I was a complete dumb***. In fact, that sentence was literally the opening line of my entrance essay to the University of Virginia- because it was true. I had no ambition. I managed to avoid a police record by being fleet-footed, and because… well, let’s just face it. Even though we were lower-middle class, I was a white kid in the suburbs. That was enough to grant me a couple extra degrees of “understanding” all by itself.
But many of the things I did could’ve easily ruined my life. It’s only by luck, miracles, and the pity and understanding of more folks than I’d like to admit that I find myself where I am today; with a world-class education from the University of Virginia. With an amazing wife, three kids, and an incredible job. Able to run for the House of Delegates here in Central Virginia.
There are a lot of things Virginia is good at doing; progressive policies where Virginia leads the nation, as we well should. But there are far too many things we’re good at doing the wrong way. We have a pervasive problem with things like the “school to prison” pipeline, where we’re sending kids to prison who never had the chances or understanding or support that I did, and effectively making sure they stay there.
Not only does that make zero moral or ethical sense, but d’you know what the cost to keep these juveniles in prison compared to what rehabilitation programs would be is? It’s frickin’ enormous! And folks wonder why people have such issues with these “pro-life,” “fiscal conservatives”.
And beyond that, how’re we expecting them to learn to do or be anything better if we never take any steps to actually accomplish that? Oh, I know the response I’m going to get from this, especially from my opponent, who is proud of being reflexively “tough on crime”. That’s his entire schtick; and in a General Assembly dominated by Republicans, he’s gone above and beyond to prove that he’s the “toughest” of them all.
This is, perhaps, nowhere as abundantly clear as it is with our felony larceny rate here in Virginia. The felony larceny limit is the value of stolen money or goods above which misdemeanor theft becomes a felony. The limit is currently $200, and it hasn’t changed since it was set in 1980. This gives Virginia the most punitive felony larceny limit in the entire country, meaning that minor property offenses can result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
This was never the original intent. $200 today was over $600 in 1980; the fact that, almost forty-years later, we haven’t adjusted this rate when almost every single other state in the country has adjusted theirs since 2005 is ridiculous (to anywhere from $500 to $2000). And you’ll never guess what- in the twenty eight states that raised their felony theft thresholds between 2001 and 2011, the change had no impact on the rate of property crime or larceny rates. That’s right, folks; the Mad Max-esque apocalypse promised by people like my opponent never arrived.
And I say “people like my opponent”, but what I really mean is… “my opponent“. Because he’s almost out on a limb all by himself on this issue. Even Ken flipping Cuccinelli, of the “transvaginal ultrasound” and suing climate scientist Michael Mann fame, thought our felony larceny limit was so low as to be “destructive”. Earlier this year, a bill to raise the felony larceny limit (SB 816) passed the Senate by a 28-12 vote, only to be die in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
I tried to find out exactly how much we’re spending on this antiquated metric, which is hard to quantify; I saw estimates of anywhere from $22 million to around $75 million over a several-year time frame here in Virginia, depending on how many “ancillary” costs you want to include in that, and how high you want to raise the limit.
I think the bottom line is, it’s costing us way more than we’re ever saving- something an expert panel convened by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services seemed to agree with when they noted that “the potential advantages of raising the felony threshold lie more in the long-term benefits of not making more citizens felons for relatively low-level offenses. Convicted felons face life-long barriers to employment, education, housing and other opportunities. These barriers increase the risk that the person will revert back to criminal activity, with even greater future costs to society.”
Or, as the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy put it, “Although stealing needs to have consequences, Virginia shouldn’t destroy people’s lives in the process.”
And that’s absolutely true. The designation of “felon” is a heavy and destructive force in a person’s life that should not be treated so lightly. I think about how stupid I was as a teenager; I was never quite stupid enough to steal anything, but I promise if I had, I wouldn’t have gone “Oh, well, these Beats headphones are worth $199.95 plus tax, I’d better keep an eye out since the felony larceny rate is $200.” No, I’d have been stupid, and potentially ruined the rest of my life.
Besides which, this doesn’t reduce existing deterrents to serious crimes. For example, it wouldn’t affect the penalty for theft from persons (a $5 felony limit); and there are other provisions that would still apply felony penalties for repeat offenders.
It probably comes as no surprise that my opponent has received thousands in campaign contributions from the Virginia Retailers Association, a lobbying organization that has consistently opposed raising the larceny limit. But as a former Assistant Store Manager at The Home Depot, I can tell you in great detail- none of our shrink worth talking about was ever from thefts that would be affected by changing this limit. Ever. Even our most theft-prone stores (and I worked in a Milwaukee-area Home Depot for quite some time) were most affected by internal shrink, inventory mistakes, and damage; that made up about 80% of our total “shrink” volume.
For the other 20%? Well, for instance, we had the Russian Mafia engaged in stealing water heaters. They’d drive up I-43 from Chicago and go all the way to Green Bay, hitting all the stores off the interstate in between. They’d stroll in calmly, load an entire flatbed cart up with water heaters, and then calmly wheel them out to the parking lot, since they knew our associates weren’t supposed to engage them. If anyone approached them, they’d just drop the cart and walk away innocently. Changing our felony larceny rate isn’t going to either deter or encourage those sorts of things any more than they already occur.
What it will do is help that one stupid kid, in a stupid moment, to be kept from making a decision that will affect and follow him for the rest of his life. Because that’s who this law affects the most. I mean, frick, even a bank teller can embezzle $999 from the institution they work at and still only be hit with a misdemeanor. But $200 on a larceny charge gets you a felony. Tell me why that juxtaposition is okay, I dare you.
I gotta tell you, though, the gentleman I’m running against isn’t stupid. I’m going to bet he’s well aware of everything I just told you. Which has to make you wonder- why would he pursue this issue so aggressively?
Is it because he needs the campaign money? Nah. Heck, there’s a single donor, a mountaintop removal mining magnate that’s been sued by the federal government for numerous safety violations, that’s given him about $300k alone. Even in years he runs unopposed, he’ll sometimes raise $300-400k, which he’ll then donate to other candidate or PACs- and yes, that means it’s entirely possible your area’s federal representative has benefitted from my opponent’s largesse after running unopposed.
So what is it, then, if not the money he’s getting from the Virginia Retailer’s Association? I can only note, coincidentally, that my opponent has:
- Consistently supported partisan gerrymandering, and
- Taken sincere and vociferous umbrage with Governor McAuliffe’s attempt to restore voting rights for felons that have completed their sentences, and
- that the most common thing posted on his candidate page on Facebook are scary articles about the terror of “voter fraud“; you know voter fraud, right? Also known, apparently according to my opponent, as the single biggest threat to our country.
You know, hmm… it almost seems like this is a backdoor attempt at voter suppression, disproportionately aimed at adolescents of color. Especially since Virginia right now, barring a Governor’s pardon, is one of only four states in the country with lifetime felony voting restrictions, even after your time has been served.
Remember that House Courts and Justice Committee? Any bill that has to deal with changes to criminal or civil laws goes through it, including private prisons, school-to-prison pipeline issues, or the felony larceny rate. It’s a committee that my opponent sits on, and will chair if re-elected.
But that last part is the key here- if re-elected. Because in a 54% Trump district, with a consistent 10% baseline of Democratic swing in state legislative races this year, we can make sure that doesn’t come to pass.
Your donation today to our people-powered campaign here, with almost a thousand unique donations to date, can power us through to November- and beyond, to Richmond. And it doesn’t take much; we’ve been built $10, $27, and $58 dollars at a time, and those individual donations are causing the Virginia GOP to have to sink time, money and effort into a district that was supposedly unwinnable. That’s caused the chairman of the Virginia GOP to come after me personally.
They’re worried- and for good reason.
Join us. Let’s fix this embarrassment of a policy and bring progress together!
Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Barboursville, Virginia, running for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 58th District this fall. Donate to, volunteer for, or join our people-powered campaign, today!