Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Shoplifters galore

When people are hard up, one thing they resort to to make ends meet is shoplifting. Not surprisingly, shoplifting is rising rapidly in Britain - last year it was up 8 per cent on the year before and the number of shoplifters in jail has jumped tenfold in ten years.

It's not just poverty of course. People also shoplift for the sheer thrill of it, because they're dared to do it, or because they're addicted.

And haven't we all been tempted when something's absurdly expensive but we really really want it? We think, there's no staff in sight, I could just put this in my bag, walk out the door, and nobody would ever know. But guilt and decency stop most of us before we actually do it.

I've only shoplifted once. When I was much younger, I stole a few things from a grocer. I wasn't poor, I had no need to steal, I did it for the thrill and also because I thought the shopkeeper was a mean old skinflint and I wanted to get even. But I felt so guilty afterwards, I've never shoplifted since.

Naturally shops don't like to talk about shoplifting, they try to pretend it doesn't happen. Which means shoplifters themselves don't often get the chance to explain why they do it. They're just seen as common criminals and frequently slung into jail* rather than getting the help they need to break the habit.

Many shoplifters are women trying to keep their families afloat and stealing out of sheer desperation. Putting them in a prison cell for months is no solution. But the real solution - reducing poverty and raising incomes - is one the politicians always shy away from.

As for the teenagers who shoplift, nicking lipstick and eye shadow to keep up with their favourite celebs, that's more about the endless obsession with image and appearance. And that's an even harder nut to crack.

* One in three female prisoners are shoplifters, and more women are jailed for shoplifting than any other crime (Home Office figures)

19 comments:

Suburbia said...

Shocking figures. What a waste of time to put them in jail?

Nick said...

Suburbia - Eighty per cent of jailed women shoplifters reoffend within two years of release. So why are we busily jailing them all?

Baino said...

So what was Winona Ryder's excuse? I had a neighbour who was caught shoplifting once and was diagnosed with a mental illness because of it.She was well-to-do and could easily have paid for the goods Some sort of 'attention' seeking mechanism apparently.

Nick said...

Baino - It's amazing how often shoplifters turn out to have huge sums of money. I think some of them just want to spice up their otherwise humdrum existence.

Liz said...

I live in dread of accidentally walking out of a shop with something and feeling the hand on my shoulder. At the age I am it would be a very easy mistake to make.

Wisewebwoman said...

Kleptomania is quite a serious mental illness Nick and in the cases of the people who steal who can totally afford what they're stealing, it is particularly sad. Some need is being filled, loneliness assuaged, adrenalin pumped. A few year's back our Toronto mayor's wife (millionaire) was arrested for it. Jail is not the answer. Counselling certainly is.
As to the others? Compassion for the poor and a strict sentence of community service for those who filch in greed.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

Liz - It's very possible, especially when many shops don't have tills by the door to remind you you haven't paid.

www - A millionaire shoplifter? Then it has to be some private need that's being satisfied. Counselling and community service are certainly more appropriate responses than jail.

Caro said...

One of the saddest stories I ever heard was of a homeless guy who stole a £40 jacket from a shop and was sent to prison for it by a judge who's famous for almost always giving the maximum sentence allowable under the law. He couldn't handle prison and hanged himself a few days later.

There should be some sort of help available for people who steal because they can't afford basic needs.

Nick said...

Caro - That's a terrible story. But the judge is no doubt undaunted and STILL jailing shoplifters. As you say, most of them need practical help rather than incarceration.

Mudflapgypsy said...

Shops don't like to talk about it....they just employ highly visible security guards and undercover store detectives.
Not to mention the ubiquitous CCTV.
I heard stories when I worked in Belfast in the 80's of certain bars one could go to during the day and pay someone to go and get any item from any shop.
True professionals, eh?
I suppose there is the thrill element for some though.

Nick said...

Muddy - True, every other shop seems to have a security guard. And I gather nicking-to-order is still very common. Of course a high proportion of shoplifting is done by the shop staff themselves.

rummuser said...

It is now classified as a disease - cleptomania. This is typically a rich person's disease. The poor do not seem to indulge in this activity.

Nick said...

Ramana - Not sure that kleptomania is confined to the rich, I think it's an addiction that can affect anybody. And there are plenty of poor shoplifters, as I'm sure any magistrate would confirm!

Los Angelista said...

I've never shoplifted but I've known plenty of folks who have. Sometimes I'd be jealous because they always had great clothes because they stole them. But I was never jealous when they inevitably got caught.

Nick said...

Liz D - That's it, shoplifting's a lot more common than we might think. But even if you're sure you're getting away with it, there's always that chance that you've been spotted.

Leah said...

This is very interesting, Nick, as are the comments. I'm late to the discussion, as I have very spotty internet access in the mountains where I am!

I can't add much more to the points here--on the one hand, there is certainly sympathetic shoplifting--and then there is pathological shoplifting, with many possible "diagnoses" including but not limited to kleptomania--it is often a by-product behavior of other disorders--but of course I'm sometimes made nervous by labeling something like this behavior as a "disorder" rather than a straight-up behavior. I guess when something is compulsive and repetitive, though, it has to be treated differently.

anyway, it's fascinating.

Nick said...

Leah - I guess you can see shoplifting as a disorder if it's something the person simply can't control - which is often the case. I've read about people with whole houses full of stolen goods, and they just can't explain why they do it.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I got it out of the way early in life when I stole a candy bar at age 6 or 7. I felt so guilty that the next day, I sneaked a nickel under the cash register when nobody was looking.

I agree that shoplifters should get therapy, not jail time. And the ones who steal out of genuine need should not fall through the cracks as they tend to do because they don't always ask for help.

Nick said...

Heart - You even slipped them a nickel? You must have felt really guilty! True, some people who desperately need help are unable to ask for it and the problem just gets worse.