Do shoplifters need counseling?


In Juneau, shoplifting and petty theft in the downtown core has become so rampant that shop owners say even their rubberized commercial doormats disappear overnight.

In one downtown mall, the commercial locks on the bathroom stall doors were removed by thieves. When building management replaced them the next day, the hinges were next to go.

After SB 91 passed, the punishment for theft under $250 was nothing until the thief was caught the third time. Then, he or she might get five days suspended jail time. Those with flexible moral standards were quick to catch on, knowing that there were no consequences. Police had other crimes to chase — ones where there was a chance of justice being served.

Juneau is taking its “Year of Kindness” approach for 2017 to the next level.

Because SB 91 won’t let prosecutors send shoplifters to jail, the city was searching for some other way to help turn their lives around. They came up with counseling. Shoplifters are going to get some personalized guidance. Parenting, if you must. And it’s because the city has no better options.

“It’s not going to be one thing,” said Amy Mead, the City and Borough of Juneau attorney, describing the problem the city faces with crime. It’s not just addressing drug or alcohol abuse, or other criminal behaviors. And since it’s a pilot, she doesn’t know it it can succeed.

“I have no idea if this program is going to work,” she said. “But it’s either going to be successful or some component of it is going to be successful and we can share that with the rest of the state. Or the whole thing will be a complete failure and at least we’ll have some evidence on that.”

Juneau has up to 50 people who might enroll in the new program, which will last a year.

“It’s entirely voluntary. We’re offering deferred prosecution agreements to third-time offenders who are willing to enroll in the program,” Mead said.


With a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, caseworkers will do some cajoling and handholding with the thieves, as they try to instill what mom and dad apparently didn’t  — morals, personal responsibility, a sense of right and wrong, and respect for the property of others.

Caseworkers will have their clients develop a small but measurable goal through a technique called “motivational interviewing.” That small goal might be signing up for public services and benefits, or taking steps to get a job.

“Motivational interviewing” is a counseling technique that, in a nonjudgmental way, gets the clients to talk by asking them questions such as “How might you like things to be different?” or “How does getting arrested for shoplifting interfere with your life?”

According to a description in Wikipedia, the counseling method is characterized by:

  1. Motivation to change is elicited from the client, and is not imposed from outside forces.
  2. It is the client’s task, not the counselor’s, to articulate and resolve the client’s ambivalence.
  3. Direct persuasion is not an effective method for resolving ambivalence.
  4. The counseling style is generally quiet and elicits information from the client.
  5. The counselor is directive, in that they help the client to examine and resolve ambivalence.
  6. Readiness to change is not a trait of the client, but a fluctuating result of interpersonal interaction.
  7. The therapeutic relationship resembles a partnership or companionship.

The Juneau Law Department says that with SB 91, the city needed to come up with other ways to deal with offenders. SB 91 has said they can’t simply be sent to jail.

“As criminal reform has gotten underway in Alaska, we as prosecutors have had to rethink how we approach certain cases, especially misdemeanor property crimes,” Mead said in a city press release. “There is very little data on how to best address this population of offenders in a way that reduces the risk of recidivism, but preliminary findings suggest that motivational interviewing and moral recognition therapy may be beneficial. We are hopeful that this pilot project will serve as a model for other communities struggling with the same issues.”

The one-year program – Juneau Avert Chronic Shoplifting Pilot Project – is a collaboration between City and Borough of Juneau’s Law Department, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribe of Alaska’s Second Chance Reentry Program and Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Inc. Second Chance is a program to help people coming out of prison reintegrate into society.

“It’s not a softer appproach,” Mead said, adding that it has nothing to do with the city’s “Year of Kindness” instituted by the Juneau Police Department.

“The only options we have now are imposing fines or community work service, but no business will agree to that. Or we can do nothing. Or we can do this.”

In additional to the motivational interviewing, participants will have to attend an 8-hour shoplifting treatment therapy program through the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health.

The Juneau Avert Chronic Shoplifting Pilot Project will cost around $67,000, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice. The program hopes to begin taking participants in October.


Justice grants of this size are common across America’s small towns. Last year, the town of Revere, Massachussetts, on the outskirts of Boston, faced an alarming increase in shoplifting.

The Revere Police department applied for and received a small grant to develop a “No Tolerance for Shoplifting” program that put more police in the retail areas where crime had been on the increase.

After just a few months of increasing arrests, police said the number of shoplifting reports started dropping. The program seemed to be working.

“Our shoplifting numbers from the last several years have been really going up sharply to a point where it has become one of our most prevalent calls for service in the city,” said Lt. Goodwin. “We had a meeting last fall with several retailers…Prior to starting this, we also interviewed a couple of professional ‘boosters’ about what was going on. Word on the street was Revere was the place to shoplift because no one gets arrested; they only get summonsed. We decided we had to reverse that. We might be contributing to the problem.”

The “Revere Reversal” was in response to a light-on-crime approach the city had. Revere had a policy of issuing summonses rather than arrests for many shoplifting incidents.

The summonses required that suspects appear before a clerk magistrate. But Lt. Goodwin said that while cases were getting sent to the court, offenders were just getting slapped on the wrist.

The shoplifting just continued to grow, and Revere noticed an influx of an unsavory element, which included human trafficking and drug trafficking. Drug addiction followed.

“We want to see if a preferred arrest response makes a difference. We hear that 99 out of 100 times the only punishment is the arrest itself.”


Arrests are not even happening in a lot of instances in Alaska, because of the terms of SB 91, which has led police to not arrest people for crimes for which there will be no real punishment.

So Juneau is trying a new approach — counsel and encourage. Shoplifters just need some help re-establishing their priorities, so goes the theory, and justice caseworkers are the ones who will make that happen, starting in October.

That theory is about to be tested.


Does drug addiction lead to shoplifting, as is the current popular theory, or is shoplifting something else?

The website answers the question. Shoplifting addiction is a behavioral response to:

  • Grief and loss (to fill a void)
  • Anger/Feeling Life is Unfair (to get back/make life right)
  • Depression (to get a lift)
  • Anxiety/Stress (to comfort or soothe)
  • Acceptance/Competition (to fit in)
  • Power/Control (to feel empowered or in control)
  • Boredom/Excitement (to live on the edge)
  • Shame/Low Self-esteem (to distract from feelings of worthlessness)
  • Entitlement/Reward (to compensate for overgiving or sacrifice)
  • Rebellion/Initiation (to break into one’s own identity)

The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention says:

  • There are 27 million shoplifters in the United States. Statistically, that means one in 11 people are shoplifters.
  • In the last five years, police and other loss prevention workers have caught over 10 million people shoplifting.
  • Men and women shoplift with equal frequency, and three-quarters of all shoplifters are adults.
  • Most adult shoplifters report that they initially began shoplifting as teenagers.
  • Most shoplifters do not engage in other types of crime. In fact, these individuals rarely steal personal items from friends and may even return lost money in some situations.
  • Most of the time people shoplift not out of criminal intent, financial need or greed, but as a response to social and personal pressures in their life.


Terrence Shulman, who writes and speaks publicly about shoplifting addiction, also says that most people who shoplift do so not out of economic need or greed.

“There is something else going on besides simple greed. People try to get ahead at any cost. People feel it’s never enough. It’s beyond money. It’s beyond dollars and cents. It’s beyond sense,” he writes on his web site, where he offers shoplifting addiction services.

“The simplistic notion that shoplifting and stealing are merely legal or moral issues is wrong. There appears to be more dishonesty than ever these days; yet, tougher laws, more sophisticated security systems, and endless moralism haven’t reduced these offenses. In fact, they’re on the rise. Stealing, particularly shoplifting, can and often does become addictive.”

If opioid addiction isn’t enough for Alaska, perhaps it is also facing an epidemic of shoplifting addiction. Communities may wish to ask whether drug addiction is leading to thefts or whether a rise in general lawlessness simply allows these two types of behaviors to appear to have a cause-and-effect correlation — one that might not be accurate.

Instead, it may be that people who are prone to addiction express it in different ways — they may be addicted to drugs, or perhaps to the thrill of shoplifting.


  1. We’e tried, and failed, with the touch-feely approach time and time again. Time to go back to public corporal punishment. Seriously. Whippings, lashings, stocks, finger and hand chopping. We have no other options. Americans had this figured out in the 1600’s. Time to go back to methods of punishment that were effective.

  2. I think it likely that there is an official complacency about crime. Here is a paragraph from a story on Page A3, of the Juneau Empire today, which talks about people holding hands across the Juneau-Douglas Bridge on Sunday:

    “One especially exuberant attendee who proudly displayed a “Recovery is possible” sign was Jose Delgado, 49, who received three years in prison for a drive-by shooting last year. The now halfway house resident, who has been sober for 19 months, spoke on the misconception of those in recovery. ‘If you get to know us,’ Delgado said, ‘ we are not bad people.”

    Did you get that? Received 3 years in prison for a drive-by shooting last year; this year is already in a halfway house and holding hands on the bridge, says he’s not bad people if you get to know him. We can wonder if he would have received at least an extra year of probation had his drive-by shots hit someone between the eyes (or perhaps he did hit someone but pleaded out). Probably just a regular, not so bad guy though, but especially exuberant I understand. What in the world are we thinking?

  3. The only time politicians have all the answers is during an election run. Just legalize crime and all the drugs. Problem solved. Or how about this, get a backbone and sign on for the long haul because most things can not be solved overnight. Fighting crime takes resolve and commitment. More jails and less whale statues.

  4. Community service put them on a chain gang make them clean up the roads have them clean up Veterans centers quit coddling them they need to be punished they are taking from others they should have to give back to others

  5. Seriously, we have a spiritual problem – our culture, not just our parents – need to teach and model that stealing is WRONG. It is an offense to God, and it is an offense to society and the victim. Painful punishment and lasting consequences are the only way stealing will be effectively discouraged. All the wasted money studying what we already know about human depravity coupled with the “modern” – as if that were somehow superior – notion of needing to enhance perps’ self-esteem (let’s call that what it really is, pride) results in throwing the victim under the bus… Evil behavior rewarded results in more evil behavior. Shame is actually quite effective at changing bad behavior. Shoplifters should be put in the stocks and while chained the churches should be allowed to witness to the captive audience. A few trained pidgeons might help too.

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