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Why doubling sentences won’t reduce shop worker assaults

Penelope Gibbs
18 Jan 2024

It’s not OK to abuse and assault shop workers. The people who work in shops are doing a job, trying to serve customers as best they can. During the pandemic, their willingness to continue working enabled others to protect themselves by staying home. Since the end of lockdown, shops have become crowded again and shop crime has spiked. Whether because of poverty, an increase in drug addiction or organised crime, shoplifting has increased with some shops being cleaned out of high value items. When potential shoplifters are apprehended, they can lash out, shout abuse or worse. More and more shop workers are becoming victims, with all the stress and trauma that involves.

The retail industry is concerned about shop staff and independent shop-keepers who are victims of abuse and violence because they care, and because they are concerned that shop staff (who are often lowly paid) will walk. There are other less stressful jobs available.

It is tempting to think there is a magic bullet to prevent and reduce assaults on shop workers. For years retail trade organisations have promoted the creation of a new offence as a key solution. They’ve been inspired by the success of unions lobbying for a new offence of “assault emergency worker” which included an increased sanction for common assault against police, NHS or other front-line public sector workers. The government and the opposition acceded readily to the demand for first a doubling in the maximum sentence from 6 months imprisonment to a year, then a further doubling to two years. Now someone who shoves a police officer without injuring them physically in any way can get imprisoned for two years for their shove, while someone who shoves a shop worker couldn’t be imprisoned for more than six months.

The retail industry feels that shop workers should be treated as a special case, similarly to nurses, prison officers etc. Scotland brought in a new offence of assault shop worker and unions and businesses here want the England and Wales government to follow suit. They see the length of the maximum sentence as a deterrent to those who commit violence and as a symbol of the value we place on shop workers. They have succeeded in getting Labour to table an amendment (clause 41) to the Criminal Justice Bill to get this into legislation.

No shop worker should be abused or assaulted. It’s not OK. But the creation of a new offence of assault shop worker with a doubling of the maximum sanction for this common assault offence (from 6 months to a year) will do nothing to reduce this crime and is likely to create harm:

          Short prison sentences (any sentence up to a year) drive increased reoffending. No rehabilitative work can be done with prisoners on short sentences and imprisonment tends to create homelessness, unemployment and family breakdown. All these are drivers to reoffending.

          A high proportion of those who assault shop workers are addicted to drugs or drink. They thieve in order to get money for drugs. A short prison sentence will not involve a drug rehabilitation programme and, unfortunately, drugs are available in prisons so short prison sentences will not in any way address the needs of those with addictions who attack shop workers

          The assault referred to in this amendment is the lowest level of assault.  All assault is unpleasant but common assault does not involve any lasting physical injury. It involves the threat of violence or actual violence so includes “threatening words or a raised fist that could lead the victim to believe they are going to be attacked” (Sentencing Council). Any assault that involves lasting physical injury is prosecuted as GBH or ABH. So this new offence, if it gets on the statute book, will not make any difference to the most serious incidents.

          The harm suffered by victims will not be alleviated by this new offence. Victims will understand that parliamentarians care about their stress and fear but the change in the name of the offence will not make any material difference to their experience of police response or of the justice system. And an increase in the maximum length of the prison sentence for the lowest level of assault will not deter or rehabilitate those who attack.

–          A new offence and stronger sentence will not reduce attacks on shop workers. This was what the police and prison unions hoped would happen with the creation of the assault emergency worker offence, but in fact assaults on police officers and others went up. Recently Tiffany Lynch, Deputy Chair Police Federation said “I’d love to say that tougher sentencing has had a positive effect on reducing the number of assaults on officers, but it hasn’t.” 

If a new offence would cause more harm than good, what should be done to tackle this wicked problem? For a start, the police need to attend as many reports of assault as they can, definitely the most serious. The greatest need of victims is to be listened to, and for the crime to be resolved in some way. The most effective response for low level assaults is for the police to apprehend whoever did it and deal with the crime out of court. Police can refer people to courses which address their violence and threatening behaviour, get people to pay compensation to victims and/or use restorative justice. This enables the victim to express to their attacker what negative impact the crime has had on them, their loved ones and their shop. And to input into what the attacker can do to make amends. Out of court, police can direct those who are addicted to alcohol or drugs to services which can help address their problem.

Reducing attacks on shop workers requires more than one solution. There are many approaches which might work, but a newfangled offence is not one of them. An offence of assault shop worker with an increased maximum prison sentence will do nothing to address the crime and will increase the likelihood of offending of the tiny minority who are sentenced to imprisonment.

Resolving crime is complicated. Let’s not resort to the seemingly easy solution of yet more criminal justice legislation.