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Did Supposed Shoplifting Frenzy Lead To An Overreaction?

Over the last few years, it seemed that the U.S. was experiencing a shoplifting epidemic. Videos of people brazenly stealing merchandise from retailers often went viral; chains closed stores, citing a rise in theft as the primary reason; and drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens started locking up more of their inventory, including everyday items like toothpaste, soaps, and snacks. Lawmakers from both major parties implemented more punitive law enforcement policies aimed at bucking the apparent trend. Evidence of a spike in shoplifting, it turns out, was mostly anecdotal. There’s little data to suggest that there’s a nationwide problem in need of an immediate response from city councils or state legislatures, Vox reports. Instead, the nation seems to be experiencing of a moral panic. In April, the National Retail Federation said that nearly half of inventory loss in 2021, $94 billion, was driven by “organized retail crime” — that is, coordinated shoplifting for the purpose of reselling goods on the black market.

As it turned out, organized shoplifting didn’t come close to costing businesses that much: With a few exceptions, major cities saw lower shoplifting rates in 2022 than in 2019, and in December, the National Retail Federation retracted its alarming claim. Since the number of reported shoplifting incidents rose after the initial collapse in 2020, there have been plenty of media reports and viral videos about the supposed crime wave. Republicans used the alleged lawlessness, particularly in big Democratic cities, to paint a grim picture. It didn’t matter what the reality was; it seemed that the public’s perception of rising crime was enough for politicians from both major parties to feel the need to look tougher — be they Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York City, or Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida. As a result, many policies championed by progressive criminal justice reform advocates, including the progressive prosecutor movement, have come under scrutiny, criticized as promoting lawbreaking. Evidence points to the contrary. In Boston, a district attorney declined to prosecute certain low-level offenses that are associated with poverty, such as shoplifting. In one study, researchers found that the policy had positive impacts, not only in reducing the number of people who get sucked into the criminal justice system but also in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Low-level and nonviolent crimes did not increase as a result of looser enforcement.


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