Laws redirect thieves from prison to jail

Changing definitions of property crimes could have local impact.

January 14, 2011|By Joe Piasecki,

Recent changes to state law will result in many theft-related crimes formerly charged as felonies to be handled as misdemeanors.

Locally, this means many thieves who commit property crimes in La Cañada Flintridge and surrounding areas will be spending much less time behind bars, and doing so in county jail rather than in state prison, said Capt. Dave Silversparre of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station.

A bill signed into law last year by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised the stolen property value determination needed to trigger felony grand theft charges from $400-plus to $950-plus. With that change, thefts of property valued between $401 and $949 that last year would have been prosecuted as felony grand theft will now result in misdemeanor petty theft charges.


Last year's Chelsea's Law, which toughened sentences for sex offenders following the February 2010 rape and murder of San Diego County teenager Chelsea King, also changed penalties related to property theft.

While it used to be that petty theft could rise to a felony charge if the suspect had a prior petty theft conviction, Chelsea's law restricts felony filings for petty theft unless the suspect has had at least three prior petty theft convictions, a prior "serious or violent" felony conviction, or is a sex offender.

"It's too early to see the exact ramifications [of these laws], but we presume more people will have to become victims of theft before perpetrators will be sent to state prison with a felony conviction," Silversparre said.

There were 104 incidents of felony grand theft and 65 misdemeanor petty thefts committed last year in La Cañada Flintridge, but under the new rules a significant number of those grand thefts would now be treated as misdemeanors, explained Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Harley.

Thefts that involve break-ins to locked homes and vehicles, however, continue to be handled as felony burglaries. In 2010, La Cañada experienced 67 incidents of vehicle burglary and 94 burglaries of homes or other structures, Harley said.

Last year burglaries declined 7.8% and thefts dropped 11.3% compared to 2009.


Dollars and sense

Proponents of lowering the property value trigger for grand theft argue that failing to adjust for inflation 28 years after lawmakers first set the $400 trigger in 1982 would violate the law's intent.

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