Misdemeanor Shoplifting Panel Stimulated Thought-Provoking Discussion at RILA Conference

Increasing felony thresholds and lacking interest in prosecuting misdemeanor theft are having a disproportionate impact on retailers.

Panelists (from left) are Mike Lamb, LPC, Scott Glenn, JD, LPC, and Paul Jones, LPC

“When it Comes to Misdemeanor Shoplifting, It’s Time to Circle the Wagons” was the theme at what one attendee termed “one of the best presentations I attended” at the RILA Asset Protection Conference in Denver, CO, in May. Mike Lamb, LPC of Kroger, Scott Glenn, JD, LPC of The Home Depot, and Paul Jones, LPC of CKR Restaurants used statistics compiled by the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) to walk the audience through an examination of the current national and state focus on increasing felony thresholds and criminal justice reform as it relates to retail theft.

While reforms are aimed at reducing incarceration and unnecessary contact with police and the criminal justice system, increasing felony thresholds and the resulting lack of interest in prosecuting misdemeanor theft are having a disproportionate impact on retailers. The presentation led to a thought-provoking discussion around shifting from a reliance on the criminal justice system to the value of an education-focused system with retailers coming together to take a more active role in reducing recidivism.

Even with more than half the session time allocated to audience Q&A and discussion, there was not enough time to answer many of the audience questions submitted through the conference app. To remedy this and to provide a sense of the discussion for those who could not attend, the answers are presented below. The questions appear exactly as they were submitted.

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How do we as an industry change the discussion in the courts from prosecution with the stick to education as the carrot?
We can start by speaking as one collective voice with a universal message. Retailers can participate in and leverage the growing movement of AP/LP leaders seeking progressive alternatives to the traditional but faltering criminal justice path for offenders. We all should take an active role in constructing and disseminating a new message to criminal justice—to state Attorneys General, to county prosecutors, and to law enforcement leaders around the nation.

This effort can begin immediately through professional associations and conferences, national and state retail associations, and local organizations. Remember that retailers are the victims of crime and thus have a right to a voice in the resolution of cases. Retailers can actively exercise that right in order to encourage and support the use of an educational “carrot” on a state and jurisdictional level as well as a case-by-case basis.

On a more grass roots level, you should ensure that your AP/LP teams consistently exercise the right to make a victim’s statement in every case in which you seek prosecution in order to share your corporate message on a local level. It is important to change the current narrative that retailers are only seeking to penalize offenders when in fact their interest is instead in the use of education whenever appropriate to build offender competence, improve lives, and reduce the number of people willing to steal in all retail stores.

How important or critical is moving from prosecution to civil restitution to address petty theft and misdemeanors as law enforcement is becoming more reluctant to help?
Civil restitution is a statutory tool to help retailers recover at least a portion of their loss. However, it was never intended to be a substitute for criminal accountability. Civil demand vs. prosecution was not meant to be an either or situation. That said, in the face of diminishing criminal justice resources and support, civil restitution is certainly a viable option to support the refocus of retail responses to shoplifting from strictly punitive to educational. Retailers have the option to offer offender education in conjunction with a civil demand, thus turning what can be a negative consumer interaction into a valuable learning experience.

In recent years, some of the diversion programs were criticized and subject to extortion claims, lawsuits, and State’s Attorney reviews. How does this education process differ from those types of programs?
The difference is that these are not retailers’ programs—they are collaborative programs in which retailers, police, and prosecutors all play their appropriate role. Retailers act not on their own civil authority but under the auspices of the proper criminal justice authority for each jurisdiction. In addition, no restitution is collected for the retailer and the education is provided by a non-profit organization, which has worked with and helped the criminal justice system use education to reduce recidivism for 30 years. The education program and cost to the offender is the same as it would be if participation were court-ordered.

Education can work well for the opportunist shoplifting offender. What type of intervention or awareness practices can help impact those that are stealing to support drug dependencies? How do we as corporate citizens help with the opioid epidemic and shoplifting? Is this part of the education we have heard through the session?
Studies show that there is a clear and unmistakable connection between substance abuse and shoplifting. However, people who are stealing to support drug or alcohol dependency need more than shoplifting education to change their behavior. They need treatment for their underlying addiction.

At apprehension, retailers cannot easily identify or be sure who is an opportunistic shoplifter vs. a person stealing to support a drug habit. Even with a person who appears to be under the influence, the only thing one definitively knows about them at the time of apprehension is that they shoplifted, so shoplifting education would be a first step. However, retailers and their community partners can use the shoplifting apprehension and subsequent education as a tool to help identify those dealing with drug dependency and then guide them toward the help they need.

Shoplifter education helps the offender identify the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that led them to shoplift, including drug dependency, and addresses the root cause of their behavior at a time when they are most receptive to behavior change. In order to expand the impact of offering a shoplifter education program, NASP is adding an assessment to their existing shoplifter education programs to identify underlying addiction or mental health issues. Once identified, offenders will be guided to community-based services to address their specific problem.

As corporate citizens, retailers offering comprehensive education to apprehended shoplifters can help drug dependent offenders to come out from the shadows and receive needed treatment. Shoplifter apprehensions can be used as an opportunity and avenue to help communities identify those in need of treatment and guide them down a path toward behavior change.

Have steps been taken to partner with federal and state education officials to incorporate this education into schools’ curriculum?
NASP has created the framework for a program called the Honest to Goodness Project (H2G) for school age youth from K–12 aimed at stopping shoplifting before it begins. Like other public-private partnerships such as D.A.R.E., H2G would be implemented by a non-profit organization with funding and support coming from both public and private parties with a common interest in addressing youthful shoplifting and protecting at-risk youth.

Many courts have their own diversion programs that tout to be education but are more so funding for the court themselves. How does the industry intervene to get true education that matters and changes the value for the offender long term?
The most effective way the industry can intervene is working with police and prosecutors to encourage and craft programs that provide proven-effective education that can be used at the “top of the funnel,” meaning as close to apprehension and as early in the criminal justice process as possible. Currently, the approach to diversion and the value placed on proven-effective education as a sanction varies drastically not only between jurisdictions but also, in some cases, between entities within the same jurisdiction. Inconsistency, competing priorities, and a lack of standards requiring proven education often result in less than effective sanctions that can promote rather than deter repeat offenses.

A collective retail voice however has the power to ensure that offenders receive substantive educational interventions that effectively change behavior and substantially reduce recidivism. It requires a small yet galvanizing shift in thinking about the extent of the retailers’ role; a shift from focusing only on today’s apprehension to an active role in preventing the next offense.

Retailers can intervene and exercise their rights as the victim of crime in a variety of ways. Here are some ways to start.

  • Actively use and include a victim impact statement with each case submission to insist that criminal justice employ offense-specific, proven-effective shoplifter education as a sanction.
  • Meet with local law enforcement, prosecutors, and criminal justice partners to create a community action plan that ensures effective educational sanctions are in place both before they enter the system and throughout the criminal justice process.
  • Engage with community stakeholders to help bridge gaps between retail, law enforcement, and criminal justice and standardize the use of proven education as a response to shoplifting.

According to the offenders themselves, the most important factor in the decision to shoplift again is their experience the time before. Thus, the focus needs to be on ensuring that once apprehended, the offender’s entire experience consistently builds their competence to make better choices, thus reducing their criminal behavior rather than empowering it.

How do we stop seeing other retailers as competitors and start seeing them as partners in fighting shoplifters?
This is why the title of the session is about “circling the wagons,” which hearkens back to the 19th century wagon trains of disparate families and settlers organizing and travelling together for safety. When a threat presented itself, they circled their wagons finding safety in their numbers and in working together against a common foe or threat.

One of the key shifts in focus presented today was the idea that retailers look to education to stop people from shoplifting altogether rather than continuing the practice of passing offenders from brand to brand. This is where there is power in a collective voice and universal message—in circling the wagons. Based on the retail presence in virtually every community in the US and the sheer volume of people who shoplift in retail stores, working collaboratively gives retail AP/LP professionals a greater opportunity to make a significant and universal impact on shoplifting. Working together in identifying offenders and assisting criminal justice partners in reducing offender recidivism and the overall volume of day-to-day offenders holds greater promise for retail loss and community safety than continuing to pass shoplifters from brand to brand.

How do you envision an education program working? Would you see retailers, manufacturers, and solution providers working together to provide educational materials and partnering with a group to provide the actual service? Could it be something all retailers work together on?
Yes. An overarching, active response, which includes all stakeholders working collectively, under the stewardship of a non-profit organization, is essential if retailers are to effectively address the crime, reduce recidivism, mitigate shrink, and have a positive impact on the communities they serve.

Using a collective voice and unified message, stakeholders can provide:

  • Education at all touchpoints for shoplifters
  • Education for the public about the harmful effects of shoplifting
  • Youth prevention and character-building programs for schools and community youth organizations
  • Proven effective programs for use by criminal and juvenile justice agencies to reduce shoplifter recidivism
  • Training opportunities for justice and retail professionals
  • Self-help and support services for people who are caught up in shoplifting but want to stop

NASP and its retail advisors and partners are poised to coordinate the collective efforts of various stakeholders by forming a coalition to help promote, disseminate, and implement comprehensive shoplifting prevention action plans in local communities nationwide such as their effort already underway with the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

Retailers who would like to know more about NASP and the plans for implementing shoplifting prevention programs, please visit the NASP website or contact Barbara Staib at 631-546-7894 or via email at bcstaib@shopliftingprevention.org.

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