By John Zebrowski OPINION
Retailers, malls and supermarkets across New Jersey are seeing dramatic surges in shoplifting over the past 18 months. It’s believed to be fallout from the pandemic-related economic downturn that has caused workplace cutbacks and joblessness.
This is a separate type of crime from highly-publicized organized retail theft rings. More people are resorting to shoplifting as a way to make ends meet. That’s no excuse; just a sad reality. It also ties up valuable law enforcement resources. Significant time and taxpayer money is expended to track down, arrest and prosecute shoplifting offenders.
It’s time for New Jersey to take the lead in the United States, and create a progressive statewide diversion program for people charged with disorderly person-level shoplifting offenses. Working with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, retailers and law enforcement, we can develop alternative procedures to get many shoplifters the help they urgently need.Most law-abiding people see shoplifting as a penny-ante crime. Yet shoplifting has subtle, expensive repercussions most people never fully realize, affecting the retail price of goods. Nationwide, shoplifting accounts for $14.7 billion annually in stolen merchandise. That raises consumers’ costs as retailers — big and small — raise prices to recoup losses.Retailers put a great deal of resources into dealing with theft. They install security cameras, affix anti-theft tags to merchandise, and hire guards to protect stores. Signs warn that shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And yet another type of theft in the retail sector receives far less attention, even though it is equally, if not more pervasive in our economy: employers stealing pay they legally owe to their workforce by paying less than minimum wage to employees.Stores in New Jersey – from big-box retailers to corner bodegas — typically hand over shoplifting suspects to local police. Processing and prosecuting these arrests — often booked as disorderly persons offenses — is time-consuming and derail officers from focusing on crime prevention. Penalties in New Jersey for stealing less than $200 worth of food or merchandise are fines that range up to $1,000, possibly six months in jail and short stints of community service. For a person who is barely holding on and steals cans of tuna or pairs of socks in winter, such punishment seems excessive. It can add to their desperation and cause them to shoplift again.