Report: Harmful Legislation Devised for Potentially Unfounded Concern over Shoplifting

By Ramneet Singh

NEW YORK, NY – A recent report by The Marshall Project expanded on the credibility of concerns of shoplifting, contextualized those concerns with data or lack thereof, and explained how current and developing related legislation may be harmful.

In fact, the report notes shoplifting fears may be very overstated by retail executives.

Nicole Lewis, the engagement editor for The Marshall Project, authored the report and Lakeida Chavis also contributed to the article.

Lewis opened by noting industry leaders’ concerns about a shoplifting increase and state lawmakers’ response to it, with conditions partly focused on group shoplifting.

A link provided to the Louisiana State Legislature page reads “whoever commits the crime of simple robbery shall be fined not more than three thousand dollars, imprisoned with or without hard labor for not more than seven years, or both.”

Lewis cited The Marshall Projects reporting on a lack of recent crime statistics as well as a lack of specificity concerning different types of robbery, linking a Just Journalism article.

This article stated an inconsistency with the rise of shoplifting coverage and the actual data, stating that “national data published by the FBI shows that reported robbery, burglary, and larceny rates declined in 2021.”

It also noted the difficulties of using industry group data because the National Retail Federation “surveys rely on a few dozen retailers, all of which are kept anonymous, and the data is self-reported and not available to be verified by third parties.”

Moving back to the original piece, Lewis described lawmakers looking at punitive measures for those who steal and resell, specifying retail crime, and targeting criminal justice reform, although Lewis notes more punitive measures are generally ineffective at crime deterrence.

A portion of the article focuses on “the National Retail Federation, one of the largest retail trade associations in the country.” Lewis cited their claim of an approximately $94 billion increase in stolen merchandise cost.

It is later noted that part of the federation’s belief is that bail reforms have encouraged theft due to the less harsh punishment. The industry is also concerned about the methods of organized crime.

Vice President of Government Relations and Political Affairs, Jason Straczewski,  stated that “it’s up to our elected officials to set an appropriate penalty for it, and the penalties must be greater than the profits being made from the crime.”

Others have looked at San Francisco and New York City reforms to imply that they are harmful.

But, Lewis moves to explain how this belief does not correspond with statistics.

Lewis contextualized the $94 billion increase, noting “the largest share, roughly two-thirds of missing merchandise, is a result of employee theft, process failures and unknown sources.”

Later looking at New York, she stated “New York shows few people committed new crimes while out on bail. And crime-deterrence research demonstrates that harsher penalties do little to prevent crime.”

She cited Pew Research, which shows “in the 30 states that raised their thresholds between 2000 and 2012, downward trends in property crime or larceny rates, which began in the early 1990s, continued without interruption.” This was consistent with states who didn’t choose to raise it, Lewis wrote.

The same Pew article determined “maintaining the decline in property crime defies a simple solution and requires a focus on the specific theft offense and the individuals involved.”

Lewis moves to discussing the implementation of “a new category of crime: organized retail theft,” with the support of retail lobbyists.

State laws vary, but she specifies that this new category carries harsher penalties than regular shoplifting. She adds law enforcement has discretion concerning the statutes, potentially leading to the issue of racial disparity.

Lewis cites statistician Michael Braun who “estimates that Black people were arrested and charged with organized retail theft more than twice as often as their White peers.”

Lewis ends the article by noting a change in narrative.

She noted Walgreen’s executive’s used shoplifting as an excuse for store closures, but “during a shareholder call last month, a Walgreens executive suggested that the pharmacy ‘cried too much last year’ about how many products were disappearing from its shelves.”

In a Just Journalism article cited earlier, an update showed that “on January 5, 2023, Walgreens’ chief financial officer walked back many of the company’s previous claims about retail theft, stating that Walgreens’ “shrink rate” (the retail industry’s term for inventory or money lost to theft, fraud, or error) actually declined in 2022.”

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