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Stealing to stay alive? How to deal with the epidemic of shoplifting

Penelope Gibbs
26 Oct 2023
It feels like in the last year we have moved from putting an extra six eggs in the shopping basket you haven’t paid for to organised gangs shoplifting to order in a way I find profoundly shocking
Sharon White, Chair of John Lewis

It’s tempting to think that making sentences more punitive or creating new offences will resolve crime, but it’s not that straightforward. You’ve probably seen a spate of recent media articles and statements from politicians about the scourge of shoplifting and assaults on shop workers. Labour have accused the government of decriminalising shoplifting by encouraging police not to prosecute people who take goods under £200 in value. Labour have also supported a campaign to create a new crime of assaulting a shopworker. Meanwhile the government, having presumably decided they have run out of time for new legislation, have issued a retail crime action plan. This commits the police to attending incidents in some circumstances, and following reasonable lines of inquiry such as recovering CCTV. These seem like good police practice rather than anything new.

Shoplifting and assaults on shop workers have been a problem ever since shops existed. The new Shadow Lord Chancellor Shabana Mahmood’s father ran a corner shop and she recently related how his till got stolen so many times that he decided to do without. But retailers say things are currently worse than ever, with thefts and assaults at epidemic level. The exact extent of retail crime is pretty difficult to pin down since most is not reported to the police. More shoplifting has been reported to the police in the last year and prosecutions have increased – though this may be explained by the fact that shoplifting (understandably) reduced during Covid lockdowns.

The phenomenon cited by shopkeepers as new is shoplifting planned by organised gangs which target particular goods. But again maybe it’s just more of the same. Didn’t Fagin ask his gang of destitute boys to thieve to order – “you’ve got to pick a pocket or two”? What is new is extensive media coverage and government focus on the issue. And it is clear that many shop-keepers and staff are having a terrible time – losing significant amounts of valuable stock and suffering daily abuse and attacks from shoplifters apprehended in the act.

So should politicians be listening to the siren calls to punish more and understand less? Not if they want to reduce shoplifting effectively: 

  1. The majority of those who are convicted of shoplifting get a court fine which is not rehabilitative. Short prison sentences are even less so. The most effective criminal sanctions are delivered by the police out of court – 19% of those given a caution (a sanction given by the police out of court), 48% of those given a court fine and 63% of those given a prison sentence reoffend within a year of the end of their sentence/of the caution being given. 
  2. The vast majority of prolific shoplifters, including those working for organised gangs, are dependent on or addicted to class A drugs. It’s been estimated that someone will need to steal c £45,000 of goods a year to finance a serious heroin and cocaine addiction. The prospect of any criminal sanction is no deterrent given their need to shoplift to feed their habit. So a harsher one will make no difference. What these shoplifters need is drug treatment, which is seldom delivered as part of a criminal sanction. West Midlands police officer Stuart Toogood got so fed up with seeing the same shoplifters, despite numerous criminal sanctions and many referrals to drug services, that he set up a new programme. Somehow, impressively, he found money to divert his most prolific shoplifters from the criminal justice system and send them on a residential drug rehabilitation programme. It doesn’t work for everyone but has had a good success rate. It’s expensive but to deal with an addicted shoplifter though the courts is way dearer.
  3. The biggest challenge for retailers is getting the police to attend and investigate incidents, rather than the criminal sanctions used for the tiny minority of shoplifters who are arrested. The police are under pressure to focus on a huge variety of crimes including domestic abuse, rape, burglary, anti-social behaviour and burglary. Every group representing victims thinks their crime should be a greater priority. Of course the police should attend more shop based crimes but, in the end, as with online fraud, the only long term answer is to design out crime. Today’s shops with their unmanned tills and long aisles are relatively easy to shoplift from. We need retail space to be remodelled, not just rely on more CCTV. 
  4. We can’t ignore the impact of poverty. There was a political backlash against Andy Cooke, the Chief Inspector of police when he said last year that the cost of living crisis would trigger an increase in crime and officers should use their “discretion” when deciding whether to prosecute people who steal in order to eat. But there are an increasing number of destitute people and some will shoplift to get food and basic necessities. The only way round this is to make safety nets including food banks easier to access (and of course reduce poverty!).

This doesn’t answer how to reduce attacks on shop workers – a serious and increasing problem, part of a trend of attacks on public-facing workers. NHS, prison and police unions campaigned for an increase in the punitiveness of sanctions for assaulting an emergency worker and succeeded – maximum sentences have been increased from 6 months imprisonment to 2 years. The retail trade wants the same for shop workers, a specific offence of assault shop-worker with a more punitive maximum sentence than the current offence of common assault. They believe this will deter assaults on shop workers. If only. There is no evidence that increasing punishments deters people from committing any crime, let alone one which is often triggered by addiction, mental ill health and/or spontaneous anger. 

The up-tariffing of sentences for assaulting an emergency worker has not led to any reduction in assaults and has led to a backlash from Crown Court judges who feel their time should be devoted to very serious crime, not incidents where someone shoved a police officer. We need to deal with such behaviour against police or shop workers, but many such incidents, like shoplifting, would be better resolved out of court. The reoffending rate for those who are convicted of assaulting an emergency worker is much lower if they are given a caution, than if given a court sanction. Above all, if we want to reduce retail crime we need to look at what causes it and address those, not reach for the seemingly easy but ineffective solution.