California Reclassifies Crimes, Reducing Prison Population

In an example of the widespread effect of the U.S. economic crisis, states like California are going easier on lower-level criminals to lower costs to their justice systems. By increasing the threshold dollar amount required for property crimes like check kiting, theft and criminal mischief, over half a dozen states have reclassified offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Some of these states have explicitly downgraded crimes or created new categories.

In 2009, the California legislature amended more than 30 sections of state statutes, increasing monetary thresholds for numerous theft and property offenses. The new legislation affects various sets of laws, including the Penal Code, Military and Veterans Code, Business and Professions Code, and Financial Code.

How Increased Monetary Thresholds Work

In one example of an increased threshold dollar amount, a theft offense in the state’s Penal Code increased from $400 to $950. Before 2009, fraudulent use of account access cards or account information was deemed grand theft if the value of all money, goods, services and other value obtained exceeded $400. Under the new law, however, this threshold dollar amount is $950.

Whether they change the law through reclassification, new definitions or increased monetary thresholds, states have similar objectives for downgrading crimes. According to USA Today, the new laws are intended to cut down state corrections departments’ costs of prosecution and incarceration. According to a Vera Institute of Justice report, states are adopting less punitive sentencing policies because of prominent budget concerns – a familiar refrain for financially-troubled California.

Interplay With Federal Order

Another factor is a federal court order, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, for California to reduce its inmate population in an effort to improve the prison system’s health care, according to an article provided by The Associated Press. The state met its first deadline and is on track to meet the goal of reducing inmate population by 33,000, or 23 percent, over two years.

Lawsuits prompted California to spend billions of dollars on new correctional facilities and higher worker salaries. This led to the federal order, an attempt to improve health care while balancing the state budget. According to The AP, California complies by transferring responsibility for lower-level criminals from state prisons to county jails. Increased monetary thresholds likely help the weeding-out process.

Californians charged with misdemeanor or felony property offenses should contact a skilled criminal defense attorney to secure the best possible outcome in the criminal proceedings.