We need to crack down on serial shoplifters

Editorial Board • May 12, 2016 at 9:23 AM

Ever notice someone shoplifting? Did you turn them in? You should have, because shoplifters take an estimated $500 a year out of your pocket.

In Tennessee, shoplifting is only a misdemeanor punishable by less than a year in jail. While that might be an appropriate sentence for the individual who never shoplifted before, it’s not for serial shoplifters who say they get caught only about once in every 48 times they steal.

We all pay about $500 more for goods annually because of shoplifters. You may think that stores simply “absorb the cost” of shoplifting, but they’d be out of business if they didn’t pass some of that cost to all consumers. Many food stores, for instance, operate on a 1 percent margin. That means they earn only a penny for every dollar in merchandise they sell.

If someone steals a steak worth $10 from a grocery, the store must sell $1,000 in merchandise to recoup that loss. As well, shoplifters overburden the police and the courts, which adds to the ultimate cost to consumers. The total cost: some $35 billion annually.

About 3 percent of shoplifters are professionals who do it for a living. And a Knoxville prosecutor thinks he has found a way to get them out of our stores and into jail cells for longer than the shoplifting offense itself dictates.

It’s a test case, and it involves a 40-year-old man accused of stealing three DVDs from a Wal-Mart in Knoxville. The shoplifting charge would net him at most a few months in jail as a misdemeanor. But he faces an additional charge of felony burglary, which could put him in prison for two years or more if convicted.

That’s because he had previously been convicted for shoplifting and knew he was on Wal-Mart’s “no trespass list” for repeat offenders when he entered a Knoxville store in December 2014, Knox County Assistant District Attorney General TaKisha Fitzgerald told jurors. “He wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said. “He was there.”

Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen last year authorized the use of felony burglary charges against shoplifters who have been banned from stores, asserting a legal theory that may end up in state appellate court.

If it does, the court should uphold the sentence. Meanwhile the legislature should make repeat shoplifting a felony.

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