Getting Smarter about Education’s Role in Shoplifting—and Crime—Prevention

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A retailer—if it so chooses—can undertake any number of actions aimed at curbing shoplifting in their communities. A loss prevention pro could give a presentation on the subject to a local school or community youth organization, for example. Or, LP could provide educational pamphlets to the parents of a juvenile offender to jumpstart a conversation that might get the child back on the right track.

But whether such activities are an important part of a holistic approach to crime prevention or just a waste of time hinges on whether education is able to make a meaningful impact on offenders—and whether it has any lasting impact on their behavior. If education works, then it clearly needs to be central to retailers’ LP strategy for managing shoplifting. But if it’s just shouting into the wind, then time spent on it is a dangerous diversion of scarce LP resources.

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So which is it? Perhaps the best evidence lies in an examination of three years of data from the King County (WA) Partnership for Youth Justice (PYJ). The PYJ teamed up with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention to deliver its Youth Educational Shoplifting (Y.E.S.) program, an offense-specific shoplifter education program. Based on data from juvenile shoplifting offenders participating in Y.E.S., the study was “one of the largest and most comprehensive we have ever conducted,” according to Matthew David, an area manager for PYJ. Just like any retailer would want, the court system in King County, which includes Seattle, demanded some actual proof that the educational endeavor was worthwhile.

Results. Of 1,040 juvenile shoplifting offenders, an impressive 94.7 percent avoided re-arrest in the 4 years following completion of the Y.E.S. program. Additionally, 92.6 percent of program participants were not arrested for any criminal offense of any kind following education.

The 5.3 percent recidivism rate for program participants was a marked improvement over PYJ’s overall recidivism rate of 30 percent over a two-year period. “The fact that the recidivism rate for youth who complete the Y.E.S. program is a fraction of our program’s average is impressive, especially considering that the follow-up period was twice as long,” writes David in a letter describing the results to NASP.

Based on the data, King County’s PYJ concluded that the Y.E.S. program is an “extraordinarily effective intervention for reducing shoplifting in our community.” The organization also concluded that the program goes beyond shoplifting prevention and proved effective at “reducing criminal behavior in general.”

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When education puts an offender on the right track, it has the obvious benefit to retailers of eliminating future shoplifting. However, additional research indicates that the value extends further—and helps to alleviate an even more costly problem for retailers: employee theft.

Thirty-nine percent of apprehended juveniles either had worked, currently work, or plan to work in retail, according to surveys of Y.E.S. program participants. Because studies show that 87 percent of these program participants are less likely to steal from their employer, education of shoplifting offenders provides a direct benefit to the retail industry by reducing the rate of employee theft. Moreover, because the typical juvenile shares what they learn in an education program with an average of three to four friends, the value proposition is multiplied.

The idea that education works is good news for retailers. It means that regardless of prosecution policies, police cooperation, and court procedures, retailers can nonetheless realize value by initiating educational sanctions. That offenders and the community also benefit simply multiplies education’s worth. And, for adults, the benefits are amplified. With jobs and income on the line, shoplifting education that re-orients them toward honest behavior has an immediate and direct impact on quality of their lives.

Response. Shoplifting stops are both critical and an annoyance. But the evidence on education suggests that they are something else: an opportunity. They provide a chance to educate offenders and to dispel the myths and false beliefs that offenders rely upon for a license to steal. By stipulating that low-level offenders and juveniles who are caught stealing enroll in an offense-specific shoplifter education program, consumer shoplifters learn the facts about shoplifting, understand its consequences, and reverse false beliefs and perceptions. Ensuring that offenders know and understand the facts about shoplifting is key to preventing future offenses.

As suggested at the outset, LP can engage proactively on the issue of shoplifting, such as by accepting speaking engagements, participating in mentorship programs, being represented on victim impact panels or community boards, hosting awareness training for criminal and juvenile justice professionals, and supporting local and national shoplifting prevention campaigns. As members of the communities they serve, retailers have an important opportunity to facilitate the education process, hold offenders accountable, and build their competency as citizens. This progressive and community-minded approach not only serves to prevent the next shoplifting offense but perhaps even the next criminal offense of any kind in the community.

Retailers can also facilitate the education process through prosecution, in which case the court takes the lead on educating the offender. Either way, it is essential—once an offender is identified—for retailer policies to help drive behavioral change. The alternative is to miss the opportunity to reverse the misguided perceptions that led to crime in the first place—and may almost guarantee more crime down the road.

Conclusion. Research and recidivism studies have shown over and over again that the most effective way to stop non-professional, consumer shoplifters—and especially juvenile offenders—is education. It’s critical for retailers to develop LP policies that help offenders to: develop the tools to examine their behavior; identify and re-evaluate the attitudes, thoughts and misconceptions which led them to shoplifting; and define their personal risks for repeating the offense. It’s only once this is done that they finally decide that shoplifting is not right for them or their future.

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