Shoplifting ought to be a matter of conscience, not consequence

Everybody loves old Mrs. Beane. She bakes cookies, cares for children, and helps friends. But she has a secret - and she's ashamed of it. Bobby G. gets good grades, does his chores at home. But he has the same secret - and he'd be mortified if it got out.

Mrs. Beane and Bobby are both thieves. They're shoplifters, part of a criminal class that costs businesses in the United States more than $25 billion a year.

The question is: What should be done about them?

Prosecute them and, if they're found guilty, send them to jail or juvenile detention - whichever is appropriate, say the hard-liners.

Work with them; make them understand the consequences of their actions; and show them it's not worth it, say others, such as the Pennsylvania-based Shoplifters' Anonymous International.

SAI says it has helped rehabilitate some 10,000 pilferers who, according to its director, Lawrence Connor, are not criminals but have this little ''dent'' in their personalities. Contrary to popular belief, says Connor, only about one percent of shoplifters are kleptomaniacs, people who supposedly can't help themselves from stealing. Another 15 percent are professional criminals. SAI focuses on the other 84 percent - which includes Mrs. Beane and Bobby.

Both approaches undoubtedly have some deterrent value. But neither gets to the heart of the matter. Stealing - whether from banks or dime stores, whether hair dryers or autos - is morally wrong. Conscience, more than consequence, should dictate against theft.

Mrs. Beane and others like her sometimes rationalize that big stores ''rip them off'' and treat them with little dignity. What's wrong with taking something once in a while, they ask, especially when there is no salesman to help and the lines at the register move at a snail's pace?

Bobby and his friends tend to look at it differently. They think snatching from the counters is just a joke. The stores don't miss those few little things. So what's the big deal?

Both Bobby and Mrs. Beane were caught, but in both cases the stores saw no purpose in prosecuting; they were content to rely on SAI.

SAI's approach was to embarrass Mrs. Beane so badly that her feelings would prevent her from shoplifting again. What if her married son and daughter-in-law found out what she was doing? SAI pointed out. And her friends in the neighborhood? She would be so ashamed, she might have to move away.

Mr. Connor's group used a different tack with Bobby. He wasn't worried about what his friends might think. But he was concerned about getting into a good college. Shoplifting wouldn't look very good on the record, he was told, and it could impact on his whole career. Mr. Conner hopes these factors will be enough to keep Bobbie on the straight and narrow.

SAI and other school, community, and shoplifting deterrent programs are to be commended for their intentions and accomplishments. But there are also some underlying factors which must be addressed, if the problem really is to be solved. And they are connected with values.

It's ironic that almost 50 percent of shoplifting losses in the United States occur during the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season. This is a time of giving and sharing and selflessness. Unfortunately, however, the commer-

cialization of Christmas and of our society in general has fed our desire for material things. And, for the shoplifter, the glitter of goods just seems to be too much. Often, he doesn't even need to rationalize, say some researchers on the subject.

It's there. He wants it. So he takes it.

Some anti-shoplifting projects have made it a point to combat the idea that Christmas calls for expensive gifts and to stress the real meaning of the occasion. But the ''don't-take-the-risk; it's-not-worth-it'' approach is much more common.

A better - and ultimately more effective - solution lies in a rethinking of values.

The reasons for being honest far outweigh the impulse to possess or the rationalizations. First, we should obey law because we all need it. Without law, there would be chaos, and society just wouldn't be able to function. Second, and more importantly, shoplifting is unethical and immoral not just because the threat of punishment hangs over our heads. We are obliged to do right by our respect for ourselves and our care for others, when we don't let these drop out of view.

Granted, these are values at odds with the assumptions of materialism. And they aren't usually learned through public programs. The home, family, and church must play their roles in sensitizing people to the deeper issues involved.

In fact, the shoplifting epidemic perhaps proves that a motto, now out of fashion but which once hung in a Midwestern juvenile court, wasn't far off the mark: ''Children who are brought up in Sunday School are not brought up in court.''

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