As much as $32 billion is lost by retailers each year due to shoplifting. As California is 14 percent of the U.S. economy, it’s plausible that California retailers lose more than $4 billion annually to shoplifting. That’s roughly $11 million in goods leaving stores each day.
The losses aren’t limited to retailers, which can lose up to one-third of inventories to shoplifters. Shoplifting drains law enforcement and judicial resources. It also raises prices for consumers, as stores pass on their costs for increased security expenses and lost inventory.
One private-sector solution is making a difference in reducing shoplifting. The Corrective Education Company offers offenders a shot at redemption the criminal court system doesn’t. Under its program, shoplifters caught by security staff are given two choices: sign a confession and voluntarily enter a program in which they are taught a life-skills course, or take their chances in the criminal justice system.
Should the shoplifters choose corrective education, they pay a $400 fee for the cost of the class. If they choose to pay over time, the fee is $500. Scholarships are available to those unable to afford the fee. In some cases, offenders pay nothing.
So why is the San Francisco city attorney trying to block a program known to reduce shoplifting and cut recidivism? Is it because it’s an effective private-sector solution that goes against the worldview that government should have a monopoly on maintaining order in society?
The program has sharply decreased repeat offenses. Records show that 90 percent of those offered the course take it; among these, the recidivism rate is less than 2 percent. Outside the program, the rate is as high as 80 percent.
Shoplifters are stopped on average only once for every 48 times they steal. For every shoplifter who enters the program and does not revert to stealing, dozens of future incidents are avoided.
Apparently this matters little to San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. He sued CEC last year, claiming it falsely imprisons shoplifting suspects and extorts them. He asked for civil penalties and restitution for every accused California shoplifter who paid to participate in the program.
The program has not been legally challenged anywhere. Herrera’s office alone argues that merely showing an offender a video of them stealing, and telling them they can either buy into the program or face criminal charges, is the “essence of extortion.”
During an August hearing, Herrera’s office tried to convince the court to shut down CEC’s California business — at least that’s why the judge felt the case was on his calendar. It was at that hearing that a city attorney admitted, probably unknowingly, why the office filed suit: The company hasn’t paid proper fealty to government.
“There are third-party pretrial diversion companies that operate — that contract with district attorneys throughout California. San Francisco has them,” Deputy City Attorney Joshua White acknowledged. “Plenty of other counties have them.”
The lawsuit itself complains that the program “has not been approved by any California court or prosecutor.”
So CEC’s “offense” is its failure to ask for government consent, to have the gall to develop and employ a useful program that bypasses state authorities.
Rather than obstruct CEC, government should support it and other private-sector efforts to cut shoplifting. Restorative justice, another alternative to punitive justice, is now California law, and the Oakland school system has implemented a restorative justice program that decreased suspensions and helped teachers manage classrooms.
Like the CEC shoplifting program, restorative justice goes beyond punishment and seeks to repair the damage caused by crime. Shirley Weber, the Democratic Assembly member who sponsored the new California law, says it “provides an opportunity for the offender to accept responsibility, acknowledge the harm, make agreements to repair the damages.”
Perhaps the most clarifying moment of the August hearing came when Judge Richard Ulmer responded to White’s charge that CEC is attempting “to supplant the criminal justice system.”
“It sounds like you’re arguing that this is disruptive to an industry, kind of like Uber was to the taxi cab companies,” the judge said. “That it’s something new and different, therefore we’ve got to stamp it out.”
Ulmer is close to the truth, if not right on it.