Treating shoplifters as career criminals is flawed - sort out the cost-of-living and overcrowded prisons first

The government has announced plans which could see repeat shoplifters jailed for their crimes. (Credit: Adobe)The government has announced plans which could see repeat shoplifters jailed for their crimes. (Credit: Adobe)
The government has announced plans which could see repeat shoplifters jailed for their crimes. (Credit: Adobe) | Andrey Popov - stock.adobe.com
As the cost of living continues to put pressure on households and prisons remain overcrowded, the government has announced plans to crackdown on petty shoplifters

At a time when spiralling costs have left households turning to desperate measures and our prisons are bursting at the seams, a new crackdown on shoplifters has been announced.

Ministers are to introduce new plans which will see those arrested for repeated shoplifting offences face mandatory jail time. Retailers and police forces have also been urged to take advantage of AI and facial recognition technology to identify said repeat offenders. Burglary, theft and common assault are also being included in the new plans.

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There are at least two major flaws in treating a petty crime like shoplifting with such a heavy hand. 

The cost of living crisis has hit all of our budgets hard - but for those who are truly desperate, the choice between eating or starving may come down to the choice to take something off of the shelf. 

In the 12 months to March, almost 340,000 cases of shoplifting were reported to police forces across the country, with around 14% of those resulting in charges being pressed. The British Retail Consortium estimates the real number of shoplifting incidents in the UK is vastly larger at eight million, costing stores almost £1billion per year. 

You may have already spotted some depressing sights in shops up and down the country; security tags on baby formula and grocery essentials like butter and cheese, laundry tablets stored away behind locked cabinets, warning signs reading ‘shoplifters will be prosecuted’ dotted more frequently around the shop. 

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Food inflation has been crippling for some, with the cost of essential items on average 7.6% more expensive than July 2022. Although food inflation has fallen to its lowest level this year at 13.6%, prices still aren’t coming down. 

Of course, shoplifting is still a crime, but there needs to be some understanding instead of treating those who do slip into these situations as career criminals. In May 2022, Andy Cooke, the HM chief inspector of the constabulary, told The Guardian that police officers need to use “discretion” in prosecuting shoplifters.

He said: “I think whenever you see an increase in the cost of living or whenever you see more people dropping into poverty, I think you’ll invariably see a rise in crime.

“What they’ve got to bear in mind is what is the best thing for the community, and that individual, in the way they deal with those issues. And I certainly fully support police officers using their discretion – and they need to use discretion more often.”

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These new plans, which are in their infancy, seem to completely ignore this advice, and ignore the opportunity to help those turning to shoplifting as a last resort. 

Government sources have said that in line with the new plans, a custodial sentence for shoplifting will be triggered at between 10 and 20 incidents, higher than knife-crime which also follows a similar policy. But along with ignoring the situations of those shoplifting, there is another glaringly obvious issue with this.

Only in February this year, it was announced that prisoners were set to be held in police cells due to overcrowding in male and youth jails. In May, The Independent reported that only a few hundred spaces were available in England and Wales with prison populations swelling to more than 85,000.

Why would it make sense to introduce harsher punishments for petty crimes for which there is no space to hold them? The government must ask what can be done to help people rather than imprison them and allow the cycle of repeat offending to continue.