Stiffer penalties, jail time deterring shoplifting?

Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 5, 2014

Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — In the past year, shoplifting cases have been on the rise in Natchez Municipal Court, Judge Jim Blough said.

The increase in cases caused Blough to raise fines and jail sentences for shoplifting.

“It was to the point where I was getting four to six new cases a day,” he said.

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Another increase in shoplifting fines, based on the amount of merchandise stolen, is coming soon in municipal court, Blough said.

The fine for the first shoplifting offense is $573, and a second offense is $673. The maximum fine Blough can impose by state law is $1,000 on a misdemeanor shoplifting offense.

“We just increased the number of days in jail (for a shoplifting sentence),” he said. “We have (increased) that three times (in the past year).”

With the prevalence of surveillance technology in stores, Blough said prosecution of shoplifters have increased and become more effective.

But Blough said he is still disappointed that cases continue to rise.

“Not only is the amount of cases going up, but the amount of merchandise (people are shoplifting) is going up too,” he said.

Walmart is undoubtedly one of the most common places shoplifters target in Natchez, Blough said.

Convicted Walmart shoplifters are banned from the store, which Blough said is included in court sentences because banning shoplifters is part of the store’s policy.

“And then if they go back and shoplift again, they’re also charged with trespassing,” he said.

In December, at least 10 people were banned from the Natchez Walmart as part of their shoplifting sentences.

Walmart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said Walmart takes shoplifting “very seriously.”

Whaling said in the past year, Walmart has increased its asset protection team at the Natchez location. She said the team is tasked with monitoring the store and catching shoplifters.

Whaling said she could not provide specific details about whether the team was increased because of more shoplifting at the store.

“We constantly re-evaluate crime-prevention measures to help identify and stop shoplifting,” she said. “It’s done on a store-by-store basis.”

Whaling said Walmart also works closely with local law enforcement to curb shoplifting.

Natchez Police Detective Jerry Ford said shoplifting is consistently one of the top crimes for which people are arrested in Natchez.

Ford said police officers stop in local stores while on patrol to show a police presence in stores, hopefully deterring shoplifting.

An important component to deterring shoplifting, Ford said, is business owners ensuring their employees are educated on tactics shoplifters use and keeping an eye out for suspicious people in the store.

Blough said he has seen a variety of items shoplifted and a variety of excuses used in the cases that have come across his desk.

Blough heard a recent case in which a man was stopped at Walmart trying to shoplift two TVs. The man told the loss prevention officers who stopped him that he would retrieve his receipt for the items.

“And on his way out, he tried to pick up a bicycle,” he said.

Supermarket Operations director of retail operations Barry Loy said all of The Markets locations are equipped with video surveillance equipment to help employees spot shoplifters.

“We train all the employees to be alert and aware of their surroundings and to be friendly,” Loy said. “Most shoplifters don’t like to be bothered, so the more friendly the personnel you have on the floor, the less likely people are to shoplift.

“It’s teamwork. You have to get everybody looking out.”

Shoplifting is more of a problem in the winter, Loy said, because shoplifters can conceal items easier in jackets.

Loy said business owners have to be proactive in their approach to deterring shoplifting.

“We do what we can, and if we catch somebody, we try to prosecute every occasion we have,” he said. “Law enforcement can’t do anything until we do something.”

Blough said he believes the shoplifting problem is a sign of the economy and poverty.

Shoplifters who steal sandwich meat, bread, milk and other food items are sometimes stealing because they cannot feed their family.

Blough said he considers those types of situations when he hears those cases.

“Particularly if it’s a nominal amount of food,” he said. “But if someone comes in and shoplifts the entire Thanksgiving meal, I’m just like, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t just come in and shoplift $130 or $140 worth of food just because you don’t have (the money).’”

Blough said some shoplifters steal items they can trade for drugs on the street or sell for cash.

Blough said jail time seems to work better than imposing fines in discouraging repeat offenders.

Blough said the minimum dollar amount that carried mandatory jail time was previously $50, but municipal court then cut it to $25.

“I don’t think that’s working either,” he said.

Blough said he is considering cutting it down to $15.

Loy said shoplifting would likely always be a problem for stores.

“I’ve been in this business 35 or 40 years … and, of course, it’s always going to be an issue,” he said. “It will continue to be something we have to look out for.”