County attorney ok with felony theft changes

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Janie Slaven, Commonwealth Journal, Somerset, Ky.
·3 min read
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Apr. 1—Last week, Governor Andy Beshear signed into law a bill aimed at lowering prison populations by increasing the felony theft threshold for the first time in more than a decade.

Gov. Beshear signed the legislation on March 22. A correctional impact statement attached to the bill estimated its passage would save the state $4 million per year in prison costs alone.

Sponsored by Representative Ed Massey (R-Hebron), the House Chair of the Judiciary Committee, House Bill 126 raises the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000. Under current law, stealing anything worth $500 or more is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It additionally increases the threshold for several fraud-related crimes to $1,000 — some of which currently have amounts as low as $100 for the offense to be a felony — and allow police to charge members of organized shoplifting rings with a felony if a member stole a total of $1,000 worth of merchandise over 90 days.

Those who had been convicted of theft less than $1,000 more than three times over five years could face felony charges under HB 126.

Supporters said the bill would bring the commonwealth in line with its neighboring states — matching West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio — and remove the barriers created by a felony conviction for many low-level offenders. Opponents expressed concern about the impact to small business and adding to the caseload for county attorneys, which handle misdemeanors.

Of the latter, Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield told the Commonwealth Journal that should not be an issue for his office.

"It has the potential to add a little bit more of a workload to us," he said, "but quite frankly, for the most part, we were handling those cases in District Court anyway."

Hatfield explained that most felonies start in district court through either criminal complaints or arrests by law enforcement. "Often it just makes sense to try to resolve the case rather than holding a preliminary hearing to kick it up to the grand jury," he continued. "It makes sense with the way the costs of goods and services have gone up too."

The county attorney added that he also likes that the new law enhances the penalty for repeat offenders back to a Class D felony.

"Most people who are victims of financial crime...unless they had some family heirloom stolen, they just want to be made whole," Hatfield said. "They just want their money back."

Hatfield was less pleased with HB 402, also sponsored by Massey and signed by Gov. Beshear on March 19. It raises the felony threshold for child support arrearage from $1,000 to $2,500.

"We wanted to leave it at $1,000," Hatfield said of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association. "...The first bill that was introduced was for $5,000 but our association was able to talk with [legislative leadership] and got them to agree to kick it back down to at least $2,500."

While the principle about low-level offenders facing felonies still holds, when it comes to families, Hatfield noted that $2,500 is still a large amount "to let someone get in arrears before you can charge them with Flagrant Non-Support.

"But we can still charge them in District Court with regular Non-Support so we will go that route."