Rather than just sounding tough on shoplifters, the Government needs to understand its causes - Jayne Dowle

I’ve seen my son tackle a shoplifter to the floor and it’s not an experience I’d recommend to any mother. Until recently, Jack worked in a local supermarket. Apprehending thieves was as routine a task as unloading deliveries and stocking shelves.

He would often come home and tell me tales - which after the event, sounded like farcical scenes from those old black and white Keystone Cops films - of a posse of store assistants pursuing the latest miscreant with a leg of lamb under his coat up the road.

However, the reality is not remotely amusing. When you’re queuing at the till daydreaming and you witness your 19-year-old and two of his colleagues exert strong force – the store manager was thumped in the face and his glasses knocked off in this particular incident – without knowing what kind of weapon a flailing shoplifter might have concealed on his person, such as a knife, it’s a very sobering experience.

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So you might think that I’d welcome the government’s plans to make prison sentences mandatory for repeat offender shoplifters. Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, says judges could be forced to impose jail terms when sentencing repeat offenders for shoplifting, burglary, theft and common assault, using new legislation in the crime and justice bill.

'Why send shoplifters to jail, when the criminal justice system is already backed up'. PIC: PA'Why send shoplifters to jail, when the criminal justice system is already backed up'. PIC: PA
'Why send shoplifters to jail, when the criminal justice system is already backed up'. PIC: PA

I’ve also been in shops in Barnsley town centre and seen female assistants in tears as young shoplifters wreak havoc, stealing anything they can pick up, then wantonly throwing what they don’t want all over the street outside.

Shoplifting has become a scourge on our retail landscape, from opportunists in the corner shop to international gangs targeting fashion and technology stores. In the 12 months to March this year, the police recorded 339,206 cases of shoplifting. However, the British Retail Consortium estimated that in reality, there were at least eight million cases, costing shops nearly £1bn a year. Store managers and shopkeepers are so beleaguered by thefts they simply stop calling out the police.

However, I agree with senior Tory Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Commons justice select committee, who has criticised the government for failing to consider the mental health and addiction problems of many offenders – and already overcrowded UK prisons.

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Neill says this new policy would “pump low-level offenders” into jails which are bursting at the seams, at huge public expense (each prisoner costs the taxpayer around £47,000 a year, according to official sources).

The day after the ‘send shoplifters to prison’ announcement, the prisons watchdog warned that England and Wales will run out of space to jail criminals within the next three years, with figures showing the number of spare cells has fallen below 1,000.

Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of prisons, said the government was already “scraping the barrel” in terms of finding places for offenders.

Why send shoplifters to jail, when the criminal justice system is already backed up waiting to sentence serious sex offenders and violent individuals, who should be locked away for public safety? Why not, as Neill points out, instead look at what provokes people to shoplift, and tackle the root causes of this burgeoning crime?

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Indeed, it could be argued that given the constraints on space and staffing, prison time does nothing to help those whose crime is shoplifting, and worryingly exposes them to wider criminality behind bars.

Prisons are notorious recruiting grounds for organised crime, with incarcerated perpetrators pulling first-timers into the net, making vulnerable individuals even more wretched and likely to go on to reoffend on a more serious level.

‘Lock ‘em up’ is the kneejerk reaction of a government which must accept it has lost control of low-level, yet damaging and insidious crime which wreaks havoc for businesses and communities and contributes hugely to the gradual erosion of social fabric.

For a start, the government should own the cost of living crisis that means some people are actually stealing food to survive – my son says that the saddest shoplifting cases at his supermarket were always the parents taking nappies and the elderly stealing cat and dog food for their pets.

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And it should also acknowledge the shocking levels of mental health problems and addiction that exist in every community, with people left for far too long without help.

Rather than trying to sound tough, ministers would be better employed addressing the causes of such a crime as shoplifting, not threatening short, sharp shocks that will cause far more problems than they solve.