Given a choice, would someone caught shoplifting rather make a voluntary arrangement with the victim to pay for their crime, or become involved with the police and courts?
That’s a pointless question in California. There is no longer a choice. The choice has been eliminated. Earlier this month a judge shut down an avenue that had allowed offenders to avoid arrest and all the unpleasantness that goes with it.
Ruling in a lawsuit brought by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn called such agreements “textbook extortion under California law” and “false imprisonment.”
The case landed in Kahn’s court because Herrera sued the Corrective Education Company, which offers a program to shoplifters that lets them bypass authorities and redress their offense in a private manner. In this program, first-time offenders caught shoplifting by a store’s security staff can either sign a confession and voluntarily enter the Corrective Education Company’s program, in which they are taught a life-skills class, or they can let the criminal justice system take its course.
Those who choose the program pay a $400 fee to cover the cost of the class. If they need time to pay, the fee is $500. Those who don’t have the financial resources are eligible for scholarships. Some pay nothing at all. The company and others call this “restorative justice.” The Corrective Education Company estimates that more than 13,000 California offenders have voluntarily entered the program.
Of course, some offenders might prefer the arrest-jail-courtroom route over the private-sector choice. But most choose the program — 90 percent, says the Corrective Education Company. The recidivism rate for those who opt for the program is only 2 percent. The rate can be as high as 80 percent for those who don’t enter the program.
Yet thanks to this ruling, the choice no longer exists in California, not for offenders and not for retailers that elected to use the company’s services to reduce their shoplifting losses, which are more than one-third of the $60 billion companies lose to theft every year.
Worse, first-time shoplifters who chose the program and haven’t completed it are going to be thrown back into the legal system, an outcome they had wanted to avoid. This will further burden an already congested criminal court system and direct law enforcement resources away from more serious crimes.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has employed the Corrective Education Company’s restorative justice program and apparently found it to be effective.
“The alternative to prosecution is an opportunity to be rehabbed through essentially an online course . . . that’s about eight hours in duration,” Mike Lamb, then vice president of Walmart’s Asset Protection and Safety, told a Nashville television station in May. “We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in recidivism or repeat offense scenarios for those individuals who have successfully completed the program.”
David Karp, a sociology professor at Skidmore College who studies restorative justice, told Time that if Walmart “can reduce shoplifting by helping people understand the costs to the company as well as to themselves, that’s a good thing.”
“I think,” he said, “Walmart recognizes that sending them to jail isn’t particularly productive.”
While restorative justice has been shut down in California, it remains an option in other states. Increasingly, choice in California seems to be only what the government and courts says it is.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.