A lot of attention lately has been given to the sudden rise in inflation and what that has done to consumer prices. A quick definition of inflation is the rising price of goods and services caused by the falling purchasing value of the dollar or other currency. Last month, the annual rate of inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index between October 2020 and October 2021 rose by 6.2 percent, the highest increase in the past three decades. You have probably noticed this when you went to fill up your car with gas or gone to the grocery store to buy food for your family.

The changing value of the dollar already impacts the Michigan Department of Corrections in terms of what it costs to feed people who are incarcerated, or to provide for their medical care. But now, a report from the Prison Policy Initiative is shedding light on how inflation also has a real-world effect on who goes to prison in the first place.

Many offenses bear dollar amounts that create a threshold between misdemeanor and felony charges. For instance, if a person is arrested for shoplifting $999 worth of goods, they can only be charged with a misdemeanor count of retail fraud — also known as shoplifting. But if the value of the goods is $1,000 or more, those charges can be upgraded to a felony. Several other offenses also bear dollar amounts that determine the difference between misdemeanor and felony charges, such as theft, embezzlement and passing bad checks.

In Michigan, the threshold between misdemeanor or charges in Michigan is $1,000 for most offenses that bear a dollar amount, but just $500 for bad checks. The threshold amounts were set by the Michigan Legislature in 1998. Before that, the division between felony and misdemeanor had been as low as just $100 for larceny or even just $5 if the larceny was from a vehicle.

Over time, inflation has taken its toll on that divide between misdemeanors and felony. You can check out how inflation changes the value of money over time using free online calculators at sites such as the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ site. It shows that the value of $1,000 in goods shoplifted today would have been worth $592.58 in 1998 — far less than lawmakers intended the cutoff between misdemeanor and felony to be at that time.

The problem is that the misdemeanor/felony division hasn’t updated to keep pace with inflation, making it increasingly easier to fall under the felony umbrella when it comes time for prosecutors to make charging decisions.

It’s difficult to know just how much impact inflation has had on the prison population without inspecting the details of every individual case. However, we do know that some of these offenses are among the most common reasons people end up in prison. In 2020, for instance, there were 231 people incarcerated for 1st Degree Retail Fraud — one of the most frequent nonviolent and/or non-drug related offenses.

When Michigan revised its felony cutoff point in 1998, one of the reasons given was that inflation had made the then-existing cutoff almost meaningless, as it had been set more than 40 years earlier. “In the ensuing years, inflation alone has caused offenses once considered misdemeanors to become felonies…” reads a House Legislative Analysis of the bills to change the felony cutoff from 1998. “The bills would address the changes that inflation has wrought on criminal law, turning larceny offenses that once were misdemeanors into felonies.”

The Prison Policy Initiative report suggests that it may be time for states to review those cutoffs and make adjustments again — especially in the wake of rapidly rising inflation. In fact, since Michigan last revisited the issue in 1998, at least 41 other states have done so (the report lists eight states, including Michigan, as last revising the threshold “before 2000,” and New Jersey as making its last change in 1978.)

In fact, one state — Alaska — ties the felony cutoff to the rate of inflation. That ensures that the misdemeanor/felony cutoff will always remain attuned to the pace of inflation.

Safe & Just Michigan hasn’t heard any talk about changing the felony threshold around the Michigan Capitol, but looking at the list from PPI, it appears that our state lags behind other states in the country in revisiting this issue.

We are always interested in hearing from you about the issues regarding criminal justice reform policy that affect you and your family the most. If you have suggestions for better criminal justice policy in Michigan, please share them with us at info@safeandjustmi.org

~Barbara Wieland