Legislature Poised to Weaken Criminal Laws Used to Combat Retail Theft

The Massachusetts Legislature took yet another step closer to increasing the felony threshold found in a number of the state’s property crimes as well as limiting the amount of information employers may have access to when conducting criminal background checks after the House of Representatives approved its version of a comprehensive criminal justice bill in mid-November. The House action came a month after the Senate adopted similar legislation opening the door for the Legislature to resolve the differences between the two bills through the formation fo a conference committee.

The property crimes affected by these bills include larceny, misuse of credit cards, credit card fraud, and receipt of stolen property, all of which are heavily relied upon by retailers, law enforcement and prosecutors to protect against retail theft. Currently set at $250, the felony thresholds would be increased to $1,500 by the Senate bill and $1,000 by the House bill.

At the current felony threshold level of $250, Massachusetts retailers already experience significant losses due to theft with an estimated $1 billion in merchandise stolen from their stores annually. The majority of these losses are attributed to professional criminals who see theft as a low risk, high reward activity due to weak property crime laws. The proposed threshold changes would further weaken these criminal laws by increasing the amount of merchandise an individual may steal before running the risk receiving serious criminal penalties.

Nationally, thirty-seven states have increased their felony threshold for larceny crimes since 2000. But the average nationally and regionally is far below the Senate proposed $1,500 level. For professional criminals operating in the region, states with higher threshold amounts become more attractive targets. If an increase in Massachusetts is warranted it should be to a level more reflective of the regional and national average to mitigate exposure to our businesses.

There is no desire on behalf of the retail industry to see a first time offender or a young person making a mistake to be labeled a felon. Yet, for professional criminals and repeat offenders who make the conscious decision to habitually break our criminal laws, Massachusetts must maintain a meaningful statutory deterrent to curb such actions. For these bad actors, increasing the felony threshold for larceny and credit card fraud only incentivizes their behavior and reduces their risk of conviction.

Regarding criminal back ground checks, both bills would reduce the time period an individual would have to wait before being able to seal records on prior criminal convictions. In doing so the scope the information currently available to employers by way of a criminal back ground check would be reduced. The bills reduce the waiting period for sealing misdemeanor convictions from five years to three years and felony convictions from ten years to seven years. Restricting access to this information hinders the ability of businesses to protect themselves, their employees and customers.

RAM will continue to advocate for changes to the final legislation in an effort to mitigate the potential negative impacts resulting from the threshold increase and background check restrictions.