Stemming the Tide of Shoplifting

Stakeholders and communities can no longer ignore the impact that a collective lack of attention to youthful, first time, and low-level shoplifting has had on the proliferation of shoplifting in the US and its key consequence—the steady and unrelenting growth of organized retail crime and, most recently, shoplifting flash mobs acting with impunity, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). The current explosion is the direct result of the trend away from accountability for theft offenders in the US, which has been evolving over the last 10 years. Now, its consequences are upon us, unleashed by the pandemic and the events of the past two years.

The association says that much of the disorder we have today is because a generation of now 20-30-year-olds have been taught that shoplifting is okay as long as you stay within certain dollar thresholds—thresholds that keep getting raised in the name of reducing incarceration and saving criminal justice resources. While these are both noble and necessary efforts, the failure is that, in our haste to act on reform, we removed many of the protective factors like police interdiction, arrest, and/or prosecution, without implementing new approaches to offender accountability.

Addressing shoplifting only after it has escalated to ORC is the equivalent of trying to stop a rushing waterfall with buckets while foregoing building a dam upstream to stem the flow of offenders. Measures like ORC legislation, ORC task forces and the INFORM Act are vital, but they do not address the root or the source of the problem., NASP says. The flow of empowered offenders will continue until stakeholders proactively address retail theft at the lowest levels and start changing their collective response to seemingly petty offenses.

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For more than ten years, the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention has seen stakeholders collectively back away from holding shoplifting offenders accountable through apprehension, arrest, prosecution, and sanctions. The result is the current torrent that communities and stakeholders are scrambling to address. Unfortunately, we are still not looking upstream to stop the flow. Acting upstream, the first time they offend, and building education and accountability-based “dams” is the most effective way to stem the tide.

Shoplifting and ORC require different approaches, but we need to deal with them both concurrently, according to NASP. While it is true that not all shoplifting is ORC, all ORC grows from and relies on shoplifting. Therefore, the response must be to fight the war on both fronts simultaneously by: aggressively arresting and prosecuting the violent offenders who use force and fear to commit these organized acts which make them robberies, not shoplifting; and proactively using proven-effective education to stem the tide of new offenders who see shoplifting as a risk-free enterprise.

Using education as a sanction to prevent the escalation of shoplifting to higher crimes is a tried-and-true practice in the criminal justice system, the association says. Unfortunately, in today’s environment where offenders rarely have contact with law enforcement or the courts, these necessary guiderails have all but been eliminated. The good news is that offender accountability does not necessarily require traditional arrest and prosecution, it only requires we act the first time an offense happens. If police, prosecutors, retailers, and government leaders work together, we can effectively use education to change the now widely held perception that shoplifting is worth the risk.

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