LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Local Walmart stores just rolled back jail time for suspected shoplifters.
"When a first-time shoplifter is caught, … they say, 'If you pay $400 and take this six-hour online program, we won’t call the police,' " Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Patrick Harrington said Wednesday as he summarized a meeting Tuesday with local store managers and law enforcement officials.
The store managers told Harrington and other law enforcement representatives that this is a program that Walmart uses across the country, and it pertains to suspects who pilfered less than $750 worth of merchandise — which is the threshold between misdemeanor and felony charges.
They implemented the program Tuesday after meeting with Harrington, the prosecutor said the managers told him.
Ragan Dickens, director of corporate communication at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., in Arkansas, said, "No retailer is immune to the challenge of crime. We recognize the importance of this issue at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology to support our stores.
"We’re encouraged by a 35 percent reduction in calls to law enforcement agencies nationwide, on average, since we began implementing restorative justice and other crime deterrence programs," Dickens said.
Noting that coercion is a good description for the program, Harrington said, "(Walmart is) basically using the power of law enforcement — threats of arrest and this office — to compel them to take a class for a for-profit program.
"That fundamentally is against what American jurisprudence stand for."
The program, according to Dickens, offers first-time, low-risk offenders a second chance in order to make things right by participating in an educational course in lieu of prosecution.
The recidivism rate (percentage of people who relapse into criminal behavior after an intervention) for restorative justice is just 2 to 3 percent, Dickens said.
Unwittingly, Walmart actually is giving first-time shoplifters a get-out-of-jail-free card. Here's why.
If a shoplifter agrees to the deal but doesn't follow through with the $400 payment or the online classes, Walmart will call the police to report the theft, which by this time is a minimum of a few days old, Harrington said.
These reports of people who didn't follow through with Walmart's program will not be prosecuted, Harrington said.
"It’s so open to abuse. That’s the problem," he said of the after-the-fact theft reports. "How do we prove it?”
Officers are trained to collect evidence, which won't happen days or weeks after the original theft.
Police run background checks on suspected thieves and might be able to link other shoplifting cases from other stores to the suspect. In this instance, a person tied to other shoplifting sprees in the area over the previous 30 days might be charged with a felony if Walmart called police the moment when shoplifters are pinched, Harrington said.
Harrington doesn't parse his words on how much he disapproves of the local stores implementation of this new policy.
“If we don’t have a law that condemns this, I’ll be asking for one,” Harrington said.
He planned to talk about Walmart's program with Indiana Attorney General's office to determine if the program is illegal.
Corey Elliot, press secretary for Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, said the office was gathering more details about the Walmart program and looking into the matter.
In Minnesota, a bill in the legislature there proposes to prohibit precharge programs, such as the one described to Harrington by Walmart managers.
The Journal & Courier reached out to the two sponsors of the Minnesota House bill. They have not replied to the request for an interview.
The Minnesota bill would bar programs that operate without involvement of the criminal justice system.
Dickens noted that Walmart has this program in 2,000 stores.
"We’ll continue our outreach to law enforcement across the country as part of our ongoing commitment to meet our customers' and associates' expectations of a safe and enjoyable shopping experience," Dickens said.
"We appreciate the prosecutor’s office and are hopeful that we can continue this conversation and reach a reasonable resolution.”
Harrington said, "To me, (Walmart is) using the system to pay (Walmart) money in lieu of not being arrested,” he said.
Reach Journal & Courier reporter Ron Wilkins at 765-420-5231.