Government policy on shoplifting needs BCRPs if it is to succeed
As part of the government’s policy on driving down crime – and appealing to voters, of course – it will oblige all police forces in England & Wales to investigate every report of crime they receive, including shoplifting. But tinkering around on the tip of the shoplifting iceberg will do little to reduce low-level crime unless the government’s policy factors-in local business crime reduction schemes.
Many forces have been accused of effectively de-criminalising so-called ‘low-level’ crime which they see as either victimless or of negligible monetary value, or both. According to The Times, police will be required to investigate every crime where there is a ‘reasonable’ lead. And now, in addition, the government plans to introduce a crime and justice bill which will mandate tougher sentences for several offences, including shoplifting, and oblige courts to impose custodial sentences on repeat offenders.
Figures from the police themselves show that in the 12 months to March 2023 they recorded 339,206 cases of shoplifting, of which only 14% resulted in a charge. And this is only the tip of a much, much bigger iceberg. The British Retail Consortium estimates there are, in fact, around 8 million cases of shoplifting each year – a figure which is, itself, a substantial underestimate.
A commitment by police to investigate every report of shoplifting won’t, by itself, make much difference to the level of prosecutions – charge rates will depend, as before, on the evidence available. Existing CCTV, supported with more and better identification evidence from facial recognition systems, and new emerging technologies such as AI, may help policing to process more such cases to prosecution.
But increasing the level of prosecutions, and of custodial sentences, obviously places much, much more strain on the courts, and the prison service too – both of which are notoriously overworked and under-resourced. When the unstoppable force meets the immoveable object, something has to give. If the past is anything to go by, it will be these commitments.
The answer, or an important part of it, is for police and government to support effective ways of preventing early-stage offenders from becoming repeat or prolific offenders in the first place. That’s where local business crime reduction schemes, especially those running banning schemes, can play an invaluable part.
Such organisations, running two-card or similar banning schemes, have been proven to reduce re-offending by first-time offenders by 75%. Research shows (read it here) that, where a ‘Warning’ card has been issued to an offender reported for the first time for low-level shoplifting and similar offences, only one-in-four are ever reported (and subsequently excluded from all the stores participating in the scheme) for a further such incident.
By all means implement a policy that requires police to investigate every report of low-level shoplifting they receive, and puts more repeat offenders behind bars. But an approach by police and government alike that recognises – and supports – local business crime reduction schemes is an essential part of making such a policy successful.