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When should shoplifting be treated as a felony that sends people to prison? In an era of social justice reckoning, retailers are facing scrutiny from advocates for supporting harsher penalties for store theft. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Thalia Karny had been a public defender in New York for about two decades when she got the case that knocked her back on her heels - the case of Qulon McCain.
THALIA KARNY: He was a guy that was really down and out. He was homeless. He suffered from mental illness. I remember one of the first things he did say to me was, I want to get better. I want to get better.
SELYUKH: McCain was caught shoplifting some socks from the department store Bloomingdale's, a petty misdemeanor Karny had seen thousands of times, except McCain's charge was a felony - up to four years in prison - all because a year earlier, after a previous shoplifting incident, the store had made him sign a piece of paper that said if McCain came back, he'd be trespassing.
KARNY: Then they can charge you with the burglary in the third degree because you're entering against the law, right? You're committing a crime by just going in.
SELYUKH: A burglary. Karny had never seen a case like this until she moved from the Bronx to Manhattan. But they crop up. In Philadelphia, a woman battling cancer was sentenced to at least 10 months in prison after stealing a hundred dollars' worth of groceries. In Arizona, a man was charged with a felony after getting caught stealing stuff worth under $10. Prosecutors would say their criminal histories set them up for these sentences.
These stories caught the eye of Rick Claypool at the consumer interest group Public Citizen. And his interest was the retailers and their role in promoting tougher laws.
RICK CLAYPOOL: This part of the industry has opposed criminal justice reforms or supported harsher anti-shoplifting laws in 18 states.
SELYUKH: Claypool's new report calls out major retailers - Best Buy, Lowe's, Home Depot, Target, Walmart, CVS - for donating to groups and campaigns that support harsher shoplifting penalties. These penalties come from different angles. They might prosecute repeat shoplifters as burglars, like McCain in Manhattan. Most often, they focus on the value of what's stolen. Many states, for example, draw the line at a thousand dollars. Theft below is a misdemeanor, usually up to a few months in jail. Over a thousand is a felony, typically more than a year in prison. Whenever states reconsider this line, retailers lobby for lower dollar amounts to trigger a felony, or they say someone's repeat thefts should add up over time.
JASON STRACZEWSKI: What we're trying to get after is the actual organized crime rings.
SELYUKH: Jason Straczewski is with the National Retail Federation, which says stores lost over $60 billion last year to what they call shrink - stuff getting stolen not just by strangers, but also workers. Top items were designer clothes and handbags, infant formula, razors and laundry detergent. At one point, Home Depot attributed spikes in shrink to the opioid crisis. But Straczewski kept coming back to concerns about organized crime.
STRACZEWSKI: Retailers are not about filling the jails with tons of people who've stolen small dollar amounts of goods. This is about going after the repeat offenders who are stealing property, reselling it for their own personal gain.
SELYUKH: His group even refers to retail crime gangs. But it doesn't actually define what a crime ring looks like. He says states get to decide. This election, California has a ballot measure, Proposition 20, to increase some theft penalties. And it says organized retail crime can be as few as two people shoplifting at least twice in six months, stealing $250 worth of stuff. The biggest backers of Prop 20 include grocery chain Albertsons Safeway. Critics often say harsh penalties backfire.
JONATHAN HARWELL: For particularly people whose crimes come out of social causes or mental health problems or substance abuse problems, sending them to prison doesn't solve any of it.
SELYUKH: Jonathan Harwell is a public defender in Tennessee, where the state Supreme Court this year upheld a burglary charge and a six-year sentence for a woman caught stealing from Walmart. The ruling cited briefs from retailer groups in support of prosecution. Harwell spoke in defense.
HARWELL: Shoplifting may be a problem, but our society - the only answer we have apparently is, let's put people in prison. We're the only country in the world that does it on the scale that we do it, and it doesn't seem to be working.
SELYUKH: People who study crime say something quite basic has actually gotten lost in all this, something very well-researched about deterrence, which is when people commit crimes, they worry far more about how likely they are to get caught than the severity of a potential punishment.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
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