Helping shoplifters on to an honest track

Shoplifters have been ripping off America's retailers to the tune of $15 billion to $25 billion a year, the FBI reports, and law enforcement agencies are cracking down. In Philadelphia, a new offensive by the district attorney's office includes special training for store security officers in testifying, and court techniques to ensure that second offenders get the maximum sentence: seven years or $15,000.

But it's a different story for first offenders. From now on, all first-offender shoplifters in Philadelphia will be sent to a diversionary rehabilitative training program, outside the court system. (In the past, only summary offenders - those who had stolen goods worth less than $150 - were eligible for rehabilitation.)

The program seems to benefit everyone. The first-time shoplifter gets to keep a clean record. The court is saved valuable time, since 35 to 60 shoplifters who would otherwise be jamming the docket are in the classroom each Saturday. And citizens don't pay a penny for the program, because the shoplifter pays the $50 fee for his own rehabilitation.

Larry O'Neill, an instructor in the program, thinks first offenders deserve a second chance, particularly since many do not understand the long-range implications of retail theft. He lectures: ''Shoplifting is a dumb thing to do. The reward of $10 worth of goods isn't worth the risk of a lifelong police record. It is the one offense that stays on a juvenile's record.''

The six-hour program, held every Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania, consists of an explanation of Pennsylvania's retail theft law by Dewaine Gedney, a lawyer; a mock trial and a look at the merchants' point of view, both conducted by Mr. O'Neill; and a discussion of values by Gerald F. Bellettirie, a psychologist.

Referrals come from the courts, directly from merchants, and occasionally from families that discover a child is shoplifting. They make up a class representative of shoppers anywhere, except that these don't use money.There's the bored housewife, the college student acting on impulse, the senior citizen trying to make ends meet, the welfare mother picking up a few extras for her family, the teen-ager looking for kicks - and the honest citizen who made a mistake.

The reasons for shoplifting are as varied as the shoppers themselves. Recurrent excuses include inflation, economic need, impulse, family disturbances , and lack of appreciation for the consequences. Perhaps the most common justification is what might be called revenge.

Jean, 22, looks more like a wealthy college student than a welfare mother of two, which she is. She is a flashy dresser, wearing a leather coat and boots, heavy gold bracelets, cashmere sweater, and an imported hat and scarf, none of which cost her a dime. ''I've been shoplifting since I was 15,'' she says as a class begins. ''It's my way of beating the high cost of living. The stores rip you off anyway.''

''The bulk of shoplifters are soft-core criminals who make a convenient dent in their moral standards to allow shoplifting,'' says Larry Connors, a retired businessman who runs Shoplifters Anonymous, a similar diversionary program in Delaware County. Since 1978, Mr. Connors has treated 1,500 first offenders in a one-day rehabilitation program. The theme of his program is that the risk just isn't worth the reward. His program, available on tape, can also be studied at home.

The best way to win the shoplifting war is to turn the first offender into an honest customer. That is what happened to Jean by the end of the rehabilitation program. ''I never thought about it from the merchant's point of view before,'' she says. ''I got scared when I got busted and fingerprinted, and didn't know if they'd send me to school or jail. Now I know I'll go to jail if I do it again, so I've just retired. I don't need this kind of trouble no more.''

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