The liberal district attorney in Dallas, John Creuzot, is refusing to prosecute shoplifters who steal less than $750, if what they stole was “necessities” like food or diapers, and they haven’t tried to resell what they stole. This refusal to prosecute will spawn an increase in shoplifting. That will drive up prices for necessities like food, at the expense of law-abiding people.
Criminal penalties deter crime, as studies have found, and serious penalties deter better than trivial ones. So the Dallas DA’s refusal to prosecute shoplifters will embolden more people to steal. Retailers set prices based mostly on their costs, factoring in the cost of shoplifting. As the Houston Chronicle notes, “store owners typically pass on the costs of shoplifting to consumers in the form of higher prices.” So a rise in shoplifting leads to a rise in prices. The increase in shoplifting will harm poor people most, the vast majority of poor people who don’t steal. That’s because poor people spend a bigger share of their income on necessities than people with more money.
Retailers make a very small profit margin on necessities. Wal-Mart has a profit margin of just 2.1%, and many retailers have lower margins. So when shoplifters steal from stores, retailers have to raise prices to cover the cost of lost merchandise. So shoppers end up paying almost all of the cost of shoplifting. And the “necessities” that Creuzot is allowing people to steal are the very items that poor people buy most.
Creuzot’s policy is not needed to prevent poor shoplifters from going hungry. Plenty of charities already feed the hungry, and starvation is almost non-existent in the United States. Instead, the refusal to prosecute shoplifters is being done in the name of “criminal justice reform” and ending “mass incarceration.” These buzzwords are being used to mask a prosecutor’s abdication of his responsibility to enforce the law, and his flagrant refusal to protect the property rights of his constituents.
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Even before Creuzot’s recent action, Dallas was already viewed as soft on shoplifters. Slate’s Justin Peters called Dallas a “petty shoplifter’s paradise.” As he noted in 2013, crime can be concealed by decisions to
downgrade crimes, or make it more difficult for citizens to report them. The Dallas police department chose the latter strategy [in 2012] when it announced that police officers would no longer respond in person to shoplifting incidents involving items worth $50 or less. Instead, victimized merchants were instructed to print a form off the DPD website, fill it out, and put it in the mail. According to the Dallas Morning News, the new process has been a huge hassle for merchants. “Retailers overwhelmingly described a time-consuming process with onerous paperwork requirements,” reported Tanya Eiserer and Steve Thompson.
As a result, more and more small thefts are simply going unreported. “Minor shoplifting offenses averaged about 10 a day before the policy,” write Eiserer and Thompson. “Immediately afterward, that fell to fewer than three a day.” The paper estimates that there’s been a 75 percent drop in petty shoplifting reports over the past year….the Dallas police should not be allowed to claim the resulting statistics as some huge crime-fighting victory. The Morning News reports that the decision to ignore petty shoplifting accounts for one-third of Dallas’ 11 percent drop in total reported crime over the last year. This just goes to show that you need to be really, really careful when you’re talking about crime statistics, and what they mean….A huge drop in crime doesn’t necessarily mean that the police are being any more effective; it could just mean crimes are being downgraded or ignored. As this Dallas situation shows, “less crime getting reported” is not the same thing as “less crime.”
Creuzot may be pursuing a cynical strategy. By not prosecuting many shoplifters, he will discourage reports of shoplifting from being made in the first place, creating the false appearance that shoplifting is declining, even as shoplifting spreads and becomes rampant. Creuzot is, sadly, not alone in his approach to shoplifting. Chicago’s top prosecutor, the one being investigated for how she let Jussie Smollett off the hook, is also curbing prosecutions for shoplifting.
The criminal justice system is often too lenient in punishing theft and violent crime. As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has noted,
Contrary to the advocates’ claim that the U.S. criminal-justice system is mindlessly draconian, most crime goes unpunished, certainly by a prison term…The JFA Institute estimated in 2007 that in only 3% of violent victimizations and property crimes does the offender end up in prison. Far from being prison-happy, the criminal-justice system tries to divert as many people as possible from long-term confinement. “Most cases are triaged with deferred judgments, deferred sentences, probation, workender jail sentences, weekender jail sentences,” writes Iowa State University sociologist Matt DeLisi. “Offenders given community alternatives “are afforded multiple opportunities to violate these sanctions only to receive additional conditions, additional months on their sentence, or often, no additional punishments at all.” In 2009, 27% of convicted felons in the 75 largest counties received a community sentence of probation or treatment, and 37% were sentenced not to prison but to jail, where sentences top out at one year but are usually completed in a few weeks or months. Only 36% of convicted felons in 2009 got a prison term.
In Washington, D.C., offenders commit rape and murder because they were spared any real punishment for prior crimes. That’s chronicled in a 2016 Washington Post story titled “How a violent offender slipped through D.C. justice system: Lenient Sentencing and law enforcement can give many chances despite repeated criminal behavior.” It described a man on trial for rape, and breaking the victim’s eye socket and cheekbone, after avoiding any real punishment for earlier crimes, such as “a robbery conviction.” Other states have become similarly lenient toward criminals, thanks to “criminal justice reform.” As The Post noted, California granted “parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder” due to recent changes in the law.
Advocates of cutting sentences for even violent crime cite rising U.S. incarceration rates since the 1960s. But that rise was appropriate, not alarming, given the huge increase in the violent crime rate between 1960 and 1990, and the fact that penalties for murder were laughably short in the 1960’s and early 1970’s (murderers spent only about four years behind bars). As Professor Barry Latzer noted in the Wall Street Journal in “The Myth of Mass Incarceration,” “murderers released in 1960 had served a median 4.3 years, which wasn’t long to begin with. By 1970 that figure had dropped to 3.5 years.” “Between 1960 and 1990, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. surged by over 350%, according to FBI data, the biggest sustained buildup in the country’s history.”
That increase in violence caused most of the growth in the prison population: As Heather Mac Donald noted in the Wall Street Journal, “the state-prison population (which accounts for 87% of the nation’s prisoners) is dominated by violent criminals and serial thieves.”