Can You go to Prison for Theft In the United States?

Can You go to Prison for Theft In the United States? In this article, we also discussed different penalties administrated for felony theft and larceny.

Can You go to Prison for Theft In the United States?
Can You go to Prison for Theft In the United States?

The United States is known to have the most cases of theft in the world with a whopping 5,217,100 cases reported every year. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention reports that an estimated 27 million Americans shoplift each year or one in 11 people. The federal government of the United States has criminalized certain narrow categories of theft that directly affect federal agencies or commerce clauses.

According to Wikipedia cites, the Model Penal Code is a law passed by the American Law Institute to help state legislatures update and standardize their laws. This law includes categories of theft by unlawful taking or by unlawfully disposing of someone’s property, deception (fraud), extortion, failure to take measures to return lost or mislaid or mistakenly delivered property, receipt of stolen property, by failing to make agreed disposition of received funds, and theft of services.

Most of the states retain only larceny as the primary offense, however, some states now have theft provisions.

Types of Theft

Theft crimes are illegal actions that involve the unauthorized taking of the property of another with the intent to deprive them of it permanently. Historically, theft involved three different categories of crime: larceny, embezzlement, and pretenses, however, this list can now be expanded.

Embezzlement was defined as the fraudulent taking of the property of another who is in lawful possession of it, by someone.

Larceny is the theft of personal property, the most common type of theft.

False Pretense involves acquisition resulting from intentional misrepresentation of a past or existing fact about something or someone or the offender himself.

Burglary involves essentially breaking into someone’s house at night (or day) to steal something.

Piracy is essentially cyber theft that involves fraudulent activities carried out in the cyber realms to extort data and/or money.

Grand Theft

Grand theft or grand larceny is a common term used throughout the United States to classify theft that is large in magnitude or serious in nature such that it may lead to imprisonment. Grand theft is different from petty theft, also called petit theft, which is of a smaller magnitude or lesser seriousness.

Theft laws, including the division between grand and petty theft for cases falling within its jurisdiction, vary by state. This division is established by an act, as are the incarceration consequences. Most commonly, the distinction between grand theft and petty theft decided by the act stems from the value lost by the original owner or stolen by the felon, the distinction basis being the dollar threshold for grand theft varying from state to state. Most commonly, criminalization is done based on the idea that grand theft can be treated as an offense worthy of penological consequences while petty theft is generally treated as a misdemeanor.

In some states, grand theft of a vehicle may be charged as "grand theft auto".

Degrees of Felony Theft or Larceny

Some states don’t only differentiate between felony thefts and misdemeanors but they also assign different degrees to a felony.

As an example, consider a state declaring five degrees of felony theft; the first degree (also known as aggravated theft in some places) being the most serious with the fifth degree being the least serious. In terms of money, let us imagine stealing any amount above 100,000$ falls under the jurisdiction of first-degree theft. Similarly, stealing smaller amounts like 5000$ would fall under the fifth degree of theft and thus the prosecution of both degrees would be of much different intensity.

States may also punish categorical felonies by degree with different penological consequences for each degree. For instance, a state may punish all automobile thefts as third-degree theft, regardless of the value of the car but if someone steals a TV, it might be fourth-degree theft and the consequences would be different from stealing a car.

Penalties for Felony Theft and Larceny

The punishments administered for convictions related to grand theft are more serious than misdemeanor penalties. Felonies are often defined as having a potential punishment of a year or more of incarceration and a fine of $2,000 or more, with some people being sentenced to a lifetime in prison for repeated offenses. However, the actual penalties enacted for a felony conviction can differ significantly depending on the state and nature of the case.


Prison sentences for felony theft can last several years, though the length of the sentence differs significantly based on the seriousness of the crime. For first-time offenders who are convicted of the lowest severity level, the potential sentence duration can be anywhere from several months to two or three years, though a court may also choose not to incarcerate them at all. For repeat offenders or those convicted of the most serious felony-theft offenses, prison sentences can range between several years to 20 years or even life imprisonment if need be.


Felony-theft convictions also bring with them the possibility of significant fines, with some offenders having to serve in prison along with paying the fine while some get off with just the fine. A single conviction can bring a fine as low as $1,000 or $2,000 or as high as $150,000 or more with many felons becoming bankrupt.


On top of any fines, courts typically require a convicted person to pay restitution for the damage they have incurred. Restitution is money paid to compensate the owner of the property for the loss which can range from medical fees to repair fees, etc.


An offender convicted of felony theft may also be sentenced to probation in addition to, or separately from, fines, restitution, or jail time. When a court sentences you to probation, it requires you to comply with specific terms and set of rules and regulations over a specific period, typically 12 months or more. Probation terms differ by state, but normally include such requirements as having regular meetings with a probation officer, maintaining a job, paying any required child support, not associating with any known criminals, and not breaking any more laws. In case of violation of any probation terms, the court can lengthen the probation sentence or even revoke it completely if some serious violation of the conditions is made. If your probation is revoked a judge may force you to serve a jail sentence or pay an additional fine, or may even impose additional penalties.

Felony Theft Threshold by State


Threshold Amount























New York






Speak With an Attorney

Felony-theft charges are very serious, and anyone facing them should always speak to a criminal defense attorney at the first possible opportunity. A conviction for felony theft can result not only in criminal penalties but also make it harder (if not impossible) to find a job, housing, or a loan later on in life. Even people who do not have a criminal record, are either wrongly convicted or associated with the offender but are confident that they did nothing wrong can have their lives ruined by being charged with felony theft. A local criminal defense attorney can guide you through the criminal justice process so that your rights are defended.

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