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Will Retailers Push Past Frustration to Jump-Start the Future of Shoplifting Prevention?

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Overcrowded jails, overburdened court systems, dwindling police resources—states face multiple problems as they attempt to reconfigure aspects of the criminal justice system. While the goal is laudable, it can be easy to ignore who, exactly, is bearing the brunt of reform.

“We have a confluence of policy changes that, while designed to save criminal justice resources and ultimately reduce incarceration, have been or are being enacted with little to no regard for their impact on retail loss, crime, and store safety,” explained Barbara Staib, director of communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the harmful effects of shoplifting.

Take California’s Prop 47, for example. Prior to its 2014 passage, a person who entered a store with the intent to steal something could be found guilty of commercial burglary and charged with a misdemeanor or a felony at the prosecutor’s discretion. Now, those who enter a store during regular business hours with the intent to steal merchandise or property under $950 are only guilty of “shoplifting,” a misdemeanor offense.

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“We’ve seen a significant increase in both incidents and in the value of cases as it became known that no matter how many times you’re caught—so long as you stay under $950—you’ll just get a citation to show up in court,” explained Aaron Moreno, senior director for government relations at the California Grocers Association. “If all you’re ever going to get is a misdemeanor citation, and you’re an enterprising criminal, you’re going to see shoplifting as low-risk and high-reward.”

California’s not alone. Thirty-seven states have raised their felony thresholds, and more are poised to do so—or are looking to raise thresholds even higher. Yet, both in California and nationwide, there is a misinterpretation of what these measures have meant. Some California lawmakers, for example, routinely tout the millions the state has saved by reducing the state’s jail population. And PEW Charitable Trusts recently reported on data that purports to show that increasing felony thresholds is effective in reducing crime.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the picture blurs. “Logic, common sense, and a closer look tell us that it is only effective in reducing reported crime,” said Staib. “With the change in felony thresholds, there is a decreasing interest in arresting or prosecuting misdemeanor cases, knowing that nothing will happen.”

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The National Retail Federation has tracked that exact phenomenon, along with the corresponding growth in frustration, in surveys of loss prevention (LP) practitioners. “We are a victim of Proposition 47,” complained one LP director. “We now use trespass as the only means of dealing with repeat criminals at our stores.”

Exacerbating LP’s aggravation are recent lawsuits that dismantled the restorative justice landscape as retailers had come to know it. As good community partners, retailers have participated in past efforts to manage low-level and first-time shoplifting offenses in ways that reduce police calls and unclog courts. But these alternative justice programs became a target of those skeptical that for-profit companies could be a fair broker in the process. The programs worked and were uniformly applauded for reducing repeat shoplifting and for lessening its burden on communities; however, the execution of some programs was problematic, courts ruled—and retailers are now paying a price for their absence. Police have not returned to their earlier policies to respond to retail calls for service, and prosecutors aren’t suddenly eager to take $20 theft cases to court.

“We have ever-decreasing police and prosecutor resources,” explained Staib, so increasingly less attention is being paid to misdemeanor shoplifting cases. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to catalyze change when the hidden costs of doing so are easily pawned off on retailers. “There is a growing tolerance for low-level summary offenses in communities nationwide, especially when the victims are ‘big business,'” she said.

The stakes for retailers are immense. Because most misdemeanor crime is petty larceny, they are the principal victims when states raise felony thresholds to reduce incarceration. However, as the nation’s largest employer, retailers also have a strong voice—if they choose to use it. Through their state retail associations, retailers can voice their concerns to legislators and instruct them about the price they pay for states’ criminal justice reform.

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So where do we go from here?

Police have reallocated resources previously consumed by minor shoplifting cases toward addressing higher-level offenses—and there is probably no going back. “We cannot change legislation overnight, if ever,” said Staib. “We cannot magically create more resources. We cannot instantly change the new philosophy of the nation.”

What retailers can do, however, is push past the discord. “We have retailers, police, prosecutors, judges, probation, and lawmakers around the nation infighting and placing blame on one another—and all the while, the offenders are winning the war,” said Staib.

Specifically, retailers can shift their focus from past divisions to future opportunities—and on preventing the next offense. NASP suggests the following action items to help retailers adapt to changes and jump-start fresh approaches that require minimal effort and provide maximum value in reducing future offenses:

  • Provide support and funding to encourage the consistent use of education for the growing number of shoplifting offenders who no longer qualify for arrest or prosecution under new laws and policies.
  • Serve as a force-multiplier for police and other criminal justice partners by leveraging your own AP resources.
  • Actively exercise your victim’s rights; insist on the use of proven-effective programs and hold criminal justice accountable for effectively preventing recidivism—a primary imperative of the system.
  • Retain NASP as an agent of change and advocate of collaboration between retail and criminal justice.
  • Leverage NASP community coordinators, who already work with the criminal justice community, to identify and execute best practices in each community.

Barbara Staib can be reached at 631-546-7894.

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