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The Prisons are Full: The Impact on Retail Crime

Retail losses due to external theft continue to rise and a major reason is that those people involved in retail crime can continue with little fear of significant punishment. If the crimes they are committing are not listed in the “violent offense” category, few will ever see the inside of a prison. The end result is retail loss prevention organizations continue to deal with the same people over and over again.

Everyone knows that prisons in the U.S. are full. So, what has that got to do with the retail industry?

Many of the people we apprehend stealing merchandise from our stores, writing bad checks, using forged or counterfeit credit cards, and passing bogus gift cards are former convicted felons and/or have cases pending in criminal court for the very retail crime for which they are now being apprehended. The majority of these convicted felons served only a small portion of their sentences behind bars, due to prison overcrowding and the expense to keep them locked up, therefore allowing them back out onto our streets, into our community, and into our stores.

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The Debate on Crime and Punishment

The problem is not from lack of discussion. We hear concerns about the many issues involving prisons and punishment from judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, prison officials, not to mention politicians and legislators. Interestingly, those criminals who are committing retail crime also hear this discussion.

Here are a few of the major points in this debate:

  • The prisons are full in many states, which means for every person taken in, someone has to be released.
  • Offenders learn how to commit crimes while in prison.
  • The cost to house a prisoner is $30,000 or more per year.
  • There is little if any rehabilitation for offenders serving time in prison.
  • The U.S. houses more prisoners than any other country.

How often have we heard these statements, especially from government officials and the media? How many times have we heard about the deplorable conditions of our prisons, the dangers inside these facilities, how little room is afforded these criminals, and how these prisoners learn from other inmates?


There is no doubt that this is a sensitive issue. Many states are dealing with retail theft and fraud by simply raising the felony theft levels, which apart from lowering the states’ crime statistics does nothing to combat retail crime. It simply makes more retail crime a misdemeanor offense.

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Some states are actually researching the possibility of making misdemeanor theft from a retail store a “civil matter” between the thieves and the retailers. In this situation, the value of the merchandise would determine whether the retail crime would be criminal offense or a civil matter. Just imagine how those thieves and their attorneys could manipulate the criminal/civil figures. This would be yet another burden placed on the retailer.

Retailers need to be vigilant, watching for these types of bills circulating within the state legislatures. Once a bill like this is passed in one state, other states will see this as a way to improve their budgets by eliminating these costs in their criminal justice systems.

At some point, retailers are going to have to get involved in the issues of this debate and in the correction of these criminal justice issues that contribute to significant retail loss.

1. The Prisons Are Full

We hear this oft-repeated statement from legislators and state government officials: “Our prisons are full and there is no place to put these new offenders unless we release those who are already there.” For many, this argument creates the perception of multiple bunks in a tiny cell with little room to move around and no privacy. But many of us see a different image. We picture those offenders who should still be behind bars out on the streets, committing more crimes.

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There is no doubt that the threat of incarceration is no longer a deterrent to retail crime. You can almost hear the criminal saying, “Where are they going to put me if they catch me? Even if they send me to prison, I won’t be there long.”

Many of those involved in committing retail crime are actually open about how they work the criminal justice system. I never pass up a chance to interview these offenders, and the information I gain is interesting and undeniable. When encouraged, an ex-convict will brag about defeating the system and what they can get away with. They laugh about the times they were arrested and how they beat the retailer who brought the charges against them. This is especially true for those involved in fencing stolen property. They know how hard it is to prove that they knew the property was stolen before they purchased it. Even if the arrest was accomplished through a sting operation, many times these fences just “walk.”

2. Learning Crime in Prison

In my opinion, this is a weak argument. Sure offenders learn things in prison, but no more than they learn out on the streets.

To be convicted for an offense that puts someone in prison, they had to commit a crime. This is not a chicken-or-egg argument. They first learned right in their own community—from their peer group, their gang, their family, on the street, on the Internet, by many means.

A person does not need to go to prison to learn how best to steal large quantities of merchandise from a retail store without being detected, steal someone’s identity, or commit many other retail crimes. So, the “prisons just create offenders” argument just doesn’t ring true.

3. The Cost to House a Prisoner

Cost is one of the most discussed issues concerning prisons. So, let’s look closer at the many issues surrounding the cost of housing offenders.

While in prison the state has to pay for food, living quarters, clothes (which are generally recycled and reused), medical expenses, miscellaneous needs, and, of course, the prison guards and staff. The amounts vary by state. Some say it costs as much as $50,000 per prisoner, but the most realistic figure is closer to $20,000 to $30,000 per year.

How do those figures compare to the cost to the public when offenders are released back into the community? Keeping in mind that the recidivism rate is 60-plus percent, taxpayers are paying for both those incarcerated as well as when they are released.

While they are in our community who pays for their food, their clothes, their living quarters, and their medical needs? Who pays for the parole officers who watch over these parolees? Who pays for the public defender the next time they are arrested? Who pays for the police who have to work on these new crimes?

One could argue that the cost to the taxpayer for early-release offenders could easily exceed the amount to keep them behind bars.

Remember that we’re not talking about first-time offenders. No one gets sent to prison for their first or even second felony, unless it involves serious violent crimes. Even those convicted of robbery will usually get second chances.

For example, I interviewed a person who was arrested in Texas for felony theft. During the interview, we discussed his past history of retail crime. He was an undocumented immigrant from Honduras and had been in the United States for six years. He came illegally into the United States specifically to work in organized retail crime (ORC).

After extensive training with an experienced team, he became the leader of his own three-person “clan” that traveled throughout the Midwest and Southeast committing retail crimes. He told me that he went “on a trip” approximately two times per month, staying out for three to five days each time. During those trips, his group would steal more than $20,000 in product from drug and grocery stores each day. He acknowledged that his team had stolen more than $100,000 on many of these five-day outings. Each evening his clan would box and ship the stolen items to a fence, who was affiliated with the MS13 gang, for approximately 20–25 percent of the retail value.

Here is the most interesting part of the interview: He said that in the six years he had been doing this, he had been arrested four times, all in Texas. Although he had been stopped several more times, these were his only actual arrests where he was taken into custody. The first felony theft case he “plea bargained” for two years’ probation. During the second felony theft arrest a year later, he plea bargained to extend the probation to four years. On the third felony theft arrest two years later, he plea bargained to extend his probation to five years.

All these probations occurred while this person remained undocumented. When I asked him how the prosecutor handled this, he said that the prosecutor told him that the immigration service would be notified of his case. Immigration never contacted him.

These cases all occurred within four years, and he had never even slowed his ORC activities. He said that while in training, his counterparts told him that as long as he didn’t hurt anyone physically, nothing would really happen to him, other than a few days in jail.

When discussing the issue of costs, what about the victims of these crimes? Who pays for the victims’ suffering, losses, or recovery from these crimes? Again, the cost to retail crime victims through city, county, state, and federal government may also exceed that $20,000 to $30,000 figure.

Wouldn’t it be nice to find the funds to conduct research that could answer the question of the cost of releasing offenders early versus keeping them in prison for their full sentence? Remember, when an offender is in prison, he is not in our stores.

4. Lack of Rehabilitation in Prison

For those who argue that there is no rehabilitation in our prisons: for the most part, it just isn’t true. There are educational and occupational courses offered in all U.S. prisons. The difference is the required cooperation needed of those prisoners who want an education.

Prisons cannot impose work on prisoners unless they want to work, or require them to get an education unless they want to be educated. They can’t be required to learn a new skill to assist them when they get out unless they want to learn that skill. Such mandates would fall under the legal concept of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

At the same time, most of us support a criminal justice system that offers prisoners the opportunity to change their lives through education or by learning productive skills. Most of us would even support giving someone a second or third chance if they are actually trying to succeed at rehabilitation. Many feel that if there is a way to help rehabilitate these folks, we as a society should try hard to accomplish that goal.

Many educators, religious and social organizations, and businesspeople donate their time to help the prison population. Education is probably the most important element in rehabilitation. The prisoners who participate in educational and occupational training have a much better chance of being successful once released from prison. But how many truly want these classes and think that education will help them when they are released?

The federal government even offers tax incentives to businesses that hire ex-convicts. Yes, there are incentives to hire those who are released early from prison. We all want these folks to succeed when released from prison, but in my opinion, it should be after they have served the time for the crimes they committed in the first place.

5. More Prisoners than Any Other Country

We can’t disagree with the statistic that the United States has the highest incarceration rate than any other country in the world. It can be sized up with one word, and that’s “freedom.” The reason we have more people in prison here is because we have more freedoms than any other country.

Generally speaking, individuals here in the U.S. can be whatever they want to be, but they have to earn it. They have to put in the time and the effort to get the things they want. It’s all right here for the taking, but it’s not free.

Unfortunately, for a great number of reasons that could be offered by psychologists, sociologists, and criminologists, many in our society do not want to earn their way. They have decided it is easier to simply take what they want or need, knowing, as we have discussed, that it is easy to get away without getting caught. Even if they are caught, little is done to them.

It is an unfortunate aspect of our society that the freedom and opportunity afforded our citizens contributes to the crime in our stores and ultimately to the large numbers in our judicial and penal systems.

Reform of the Justice System

We as retailers need to encourage our government leaders to look at the big picture, beyond the dollar sign, and take in all accounts of the costs–not just what appears on the bottom line. We are experiencing retail crime every day in our stores, and the number of these offenses will continue to rise because retail theft and fraud are considered non-violent crimes. It won’t be long before prisons refuse anyone who has not committed a serious violent crime. Some states are already leaning that way. For example, in 2015, California released nearly 3,000 inmates in an effort to diminish its prison population to a court-mandated level.

Many times, those involved in property crimes receive probation the first, second, and even third offenses. This keeps those individuals out on the streets with the ability to continue committing retail crime in our stores. We have heard offenders over and over say, “Retail theft is profitable, with little consequence.”

No one can argue that our prison system does not need to be fixed. The fact that our prisons are overpopulated is not an excuse to open the doors to retail criminals who continue to prey on our stores over and over again.

Retailers can and should take the lead in addressing this problem with state legislatures. Controls have to be created, and states should be held responsible to protect taxpayers from these offenders.

This article was first published in 2012 and updated October 10, 2016.

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