I saw this going viral over the weekend: A Tiny Number of Shoplifters Commit Thousands of New York City Thefts.
A relatively small number of repeat offenders collectively steal the most:
Nearly a third of all shoplifting arrests in New York City last year involved just 327 people, the police said. Collectively, they were arrested and rearrested more than 6,000 times, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said. Some engage in shoplifting as a trade, while others are driven by addiction or mental illness; the police did not identify the 327 people in the analysis.
The situation is getting worse:
By the end of 2022, the theft of items valued at less than $1,000 had increased 53 percent since 2019 at major commercial locations, according to a new analysis of police data by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Over the past five years, shoplifting complaints nearly doubled, peaking at nearly 64,000 last year, police data shows. Only about 34 percent resulted in arrests last year, compared with 60 percent in 2017.
Shoplifting is a difficult crime to adjudicate. Because the monetary loss is small, it’s hard for prosecutors and politicians justify significant jail time, even for repeat offenders. Moreover, because shoplifting is so common, to have to jail all these petty thieves is expensive, especially for states that are strapped for cash. Same for prison overcrowding, which is a big problem for many states.
The shoplifting epidemic, not just in New York but also California and Seattle, shows the limitations of states’ rights. First, state lawmakers have a lot of discretion about the sentencing guidelines and penalties for crimes of a non-federal nature. For example, stealing just $200 to $500 is technically a felony in New Jersey, the lowest of any state. Some states, like New York, have bail reform. Or three-strikes laws, which for New York only applies to certain felonies and not misdemeanors. (The shoplifters are smart enough, hence, to steal under the felony threshold.)
Had these 327 individuals committed federal crimes, the federal government would have no difficulty finding the resources to investigate and imprison them. An obvious example is Jan 6th for the crime of merely entering the Capitol, yet shoplifters, who are actually causing harm to society, are allowed to steal with impunity repeatedly.
Second, states often lack the resources to mass-incarcerate repeat petty offenders, compared to serious offenders. Yet shoplifting, collectivity, imposes a significant economic harm, especially to communities and businesses. Having the federal government fund the construction and staffing of state prisons, for overflow accommodations, is one solution to this. This would be a tiny amount relative to the federal budget (total federal + state prison spending is just $80 billion/year), but the economic windfall from removing these people from society would make it more than worthwhile.