Shoplifting Penalties: Losing Their Effectiveness

During my nearly six decades of having some type of association with the retail industry, I have witnessed a number of changes occur in regards to theft prevention. However, every time I start thinking retailers are close to winning the war against shoplifters, something surfaces that dispels my positive thinking. For example, who would have thought that today as more and more of these thieves are caught stealing that their punishment for their crimes would become little more than a “slap-on-the-wrist”.

Historical Evidence
A few years back I commenced to write a comprehensive book on the evolution of retailing. Naturally, any such book would have to include the crime of shoplifting. After much research, I learned a great deal about shoplifting, methods and tools used, and penalties assigned. For example, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shoplifting was recognized as a serious crime in England, and was dealt with severely. In 1597, the British Government – after passage of a Transportation bill – began shipping convicts, consisting of petty shoplifters and others, across the Atlantic to work in plantations of the new land known as America. Those committing “felony” shoplifting or repeat shoplifters were sentenced to death.

While we know very little about crime in America’s first settlements such as the Plymouth Colony in the 1600s, what we do know indicates that penalties for theft and larceny were not as severe as punishment in England. It appears that shoplifters were given a fine, public whipping, or condemned to sit in public stocks. Stealing also carried the penalty of repaying double the monetary value of what was stolen, or be publicly whipped.

As the mid-1800s got underway, retailing in America commenced to “boom” as it moved away from local shops into a whole new world of mass marketing. By the late 1800s, shoplifting was one of the more serious crimes taking place in America.
By the mid-1900s, the new open display concept designed to help “tempt” customers to buy also “tempted” thieves. As the retail industry rolled into the 1960s, shoplifting had reached epidemic proportions and no letup was in sight. As time moved forward, so did the retailers’ methods of deterring the shoplifter; the era of anti-theft technology was well underway.

As for punishment, initially, for those shoplifters prosecuted, the retail dollar criteria to warrant a felony charge was set at $100.00. However, as prisons began to become crowded and bogged down, many states’ legislators, prosecutors, and judges began to view crimes of shoplifting as trivial matters. As such, penalties began to soften and the criteria to warrant a felony charge were raised in some states from $100.00 to $250.00. Focus was on reducing the numbers of prisoners incarcerated. It appears that the goal of this “cost-saving” strategy was to reduce prison overcrowding and little more.

In last summer’s The Hayes Report newsletter issue (Vol. 31, No. 3), we reported on a growing trend for lawmakers in a number of states to downgrade a variety of criminal felony offenses to a misdemeanor in an effort to reduce jail overcrowding. As part of this “strategy”, the dollar amount of the theft of goods in what would have routinely been a felony shoplifting case was raised substantially to keep those cases within the misdemeanor category; one that can be disposed of with a citation, fine, probation, or insignificant jail time.

Sure the politicians have been able to reduce crowded jails and prisons, but at the retailers expense. Unfortunately, a large number of hardcore thieves have a very good understanding of these laws; they simply avoid felony prosecutions by keeping their individual theft-dollar amounts in the misdemeanor range. As I have said previously, the state of California is a good example. $

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