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AS a consequence of a rash of smash-and-grab thefts throughout the year, multiple states have introduced new laws to combat the issue.
Ten states have introduced theft-related laws this year; they range from harsher punishments to implementing task forces to address shoplifting.
The 2023 states that have instituted such laws are Texas, Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.
In the prior year California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, and North Carolina had instituted similar laws.
Texas has instituted two separate laws, the first being a task force to address the perceived rising theft issue.
The second law allows those charged and found guilty of shoplifting to avoid all jail time by enrolling in and completing an educational course.
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro recently reduced the threshold of merchandise stolen to qualify for a felony retail theft conviction; this also creates a new felony charge in the state.
The bill also created a section of the attorney general’s office dedicated to investigating retail theft rings.
These laws have garnered mixed reactions from the public, lawmakers, and various organizational stakeholders.
Bradley Haywood, a public defender in Arlington, Virginia is still pushing back against his state’s new law that created a new shoplifting felony charge, intending to have them repealed.
“The notion that, like, the mafia is going to get rich selling air freshener and deodorant … that just seems pretty ridiculous to me,” he said, later confirming the statement on X.
Law enforcement and lawmakers have argued that the past few years have seen a trend of increased shoplifting and dangerous instances of theft.
“As we saw in Philadelphia … when mobs of people ransacked dozens of stores, our retailers are under siege,” Sen. David Argall said in October after his bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee according to Lehigh Valley Live.
“The increase in retail theft we’ve seen in recent years is a slap in the face of every hardworking Pennsylvanian trying to provide for themselves and their families.”
In argument, the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the “tough on crime,” new bill.
“If enacted, SB 596 would exacerbate these existing racial and economic disparities, putting more people behind bars for longer,” the organization said in a position statement.
“Longer prison terms offer a poor return on public safety investments, and by siphoning off taxpayer dollars to create more bureaucracy to prosecute these cases, SB 596 would only compound the loss to public safety from such an investment.”
Many of these retail theft-related laws were spurred by a concerning statistic released by the National Retail Federation which claimed that 50% of the $94.5 billion reported merchandise loss in 2021 was due to organized retail theft rings.
Recently, the organization was forced to recant its original statistic, rerunning the numbers to show that the figure is closer to 5%.
While this still amounts to $4.7 billion in losses due to retail theft rings; many are citing the error as a reason to pull back on some of the strict laws.
“Obviously, their account that they put out erroneous data hurts their credibility,” said Texas Democratic state Republican Chris Turner.
He wrote the state’s new law creating a 10-member task force to investigate the threat posed by organized retail theft.
“From my vantage point, if someone brought me data from that organization in the future, I’d want to double- and triple-check it.”
Mary McGinty, vice president of communications and public affairs for the National Retail Federation, still maintains that retail theft is an increasing issue.
“We stand behind the widely understood fact that organized retail crime is a serious problem impacting retailers of all sizes and communities across our nation,” said McGinty in a statement.
However other experts in the field studying retail theft are not so sure that the problem has been accurately assessed yet.
“At this point, we just don’t have a strong grasp on the extent and changing nature of the shoplifting problem,” said Ernesto Lopez, research specialist for the Council on Criminal Justice in a statement to the Associated Press.
“One reason for this is that we don’t know how many retailers are reporting theft incidents to police, and how often they are reporting them,” he explained.
“We also don’t know how anti-theft measures taken by retailers may be affecting theft levels. Without all of that information, any portrait of shoplifting will be incomplete.”
While social media has created a platform for instances of retail theft, especially the most feared “smash and grabs,” to be widely circulated, overinflating the perception that they happen frequently.
Lopez said that his organization found that such methods of shoplifting “are rare and account for a very small percentage of overall shoplifting.”
Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association pushed for a law in the state that allows law enforcement to cross and operate outside of their jurisdiction when chasing after shoplifters.
“We’ve had major national retailers close their doors in Alabama because theft was so high,” he explained to Stateline.
“I think there’s these groups that are more sympathetic to criminal defendants than they are [to] victims,” he continued.
“We know it in the numbers. We see the images of the thieves, people going in and cleaning out stores. And it’s been at the expense of victims of crime, and I’m sick of it.”