Pet Peeve #26: Ineffective Justice System Fosters Increased Crime

K-Mart has its Blue Light specials. Now Wal-Mart is giving the Green Light to budding shoplifters who can restrain themselves to snatching items under $25. In fact if you are under the age of 18 or over 65 you can now help yourself to any item without fear of prosecution. One can argue the wisdom of the super chain’s new directive, but you certainly have to be sympathetic with a situation where the victim is hurt more by pursuing justice than the perpetrator of the crime. The bottom line is that our criminal justice system has proven too ineffective and costly to perform its basic function of deterring crime.

While I do not condone the leaking to the press of these internal Wal-Mart documents and I do not support the anti-union agenda of WakeUpWalMart.com, the details of this case make for interesting discussion:

Today, WakeUpWalMart.com, as reported by the New York Times, revealed a new internal document which detailed Wal-Mart’s recent changes to the company’s shoplifting policies.

The new changes abandon Sam Walton’s policy of ‘zero- tolerance,’ in favor of a new policy which tells workers not to stop shoplifters for items under $25. The internal Wal-Mart policy document was given to WakeUpWalmart.com by a former Wal- Mart worker who is deeply concerned with the negative effect this policy will have on other Wal-Mart workers, the company, and the community.

According to the internal Wal-Mart document, the new shoplifting policy has changed from “Shoplifter Apprehensions” to “Investigation and Detention of Shoplifters.” In particular, the new shoplifting document explains to Wal-Mart workers that “the guidelines for prosecution of shoplifters have changed: the retail value of the merchandise recovered must exceed $25, and the suspected shoplifter must be at or between the ages of 18 and 65.”

The change in shoplifting policy is a dramatic departure from Sam Walton’s policies. Sam Walton believed shoplifting was “one of the biggest enemies of profitability in the retail business,” and even linked employee bonuses to reducing the shrinkage in each Wal-Mart store…

The shift in Wal-Mart’s shoplifting policy follows widespread reports from Wal-Mart workers, many in the Loss Prevention Division, who have witnessed deep cuts, scheduling changes, and other restructuring at Wal-Mart stores. In fact, as reported in the New York Times, J.P. Suarez, Wal-Mart’s Loss Prevention director admits the company is making these changes as a cost- saving measure. As Suarez states “it was no longer efficient to prosecute petty shoplifters, ‘If I have somebody being paid $12 an hour processing a $5 theft, I have just lost money’,” he said. “I have also lost the time to catch somebody stealing $100 or an organized group stealing $3,000.”

Wal-Mart’s change in shoplifting policy also follows the well- publicized release by WakeUpWalMart.com of a study of police call incidents at Wal-Mart stores. The study, entitled “Is Wal-Mart Safe?” analyzed the official 2004 police incident reports (i.e. calls for police service) at 551 Wal-Mart store locations. According to the study, based on the number of reported police incidents for the sample, it is estimated police responded to nearly 1 million police incidents at Wal-Mart in 2004 costing taxpayers $77 million annually.

Unfortunately this solution will only continue to escalate the problems regarding shoplifting faced by all major retailers. Now that the barriers of entry have been lowered, more people will get a taste of the freebies of shoplifting and become addicted to the flow of free merchandise. Wal-Mart purports to be freeing up internal resources and police resources to focus on the more serious offenders; in reality they will find themselves overwhelmed by an increasing flood of offenders. That is the harsh truth about human nature – without the restraining threat of apprehension and prosecution, what is to stop individuals from testing the system?

Zero Tolerance is the right approach. But the problems with the criminal justice system need to be addressed to put the burden for crime back on the shoulders of the criminals. That is obviously beyond the scope of Wal-Mart’s jurisdiction. Hence they have scrambled around to try to minimize their economic exposure. In the end all consumers are paying the price for the increase in shoplifting.