Were you ever cold enough to be tempted to steal a pair of socks?  I met someone who was, and many others in similar situations.  The way different stores deal with shoplifters varies wildly.  At my local grocery store, the manager simply has the person return the item and warns them that they are not allowed back into the store.  Only if they are caught again does he inform the police.  I was told he has very few repeat offenders, usually the chronically needy or people with mental health issues.

For some misdemeanor offenses such as property damage, shoplifting and even some car accidents, the criminal charge may be dropped through an alternative called a compromise of misdemeanor.  In effect, the person who causes the damage pays for it with money to the victim of the crime (the store, property owner or car owner).  The idea is that the victim has received satisfaction, so there is no societal need for further punishment.  The prosecutor monitors these cases and once all the money is paid, the charges are usually reduced to something minor, or even dropped.

This kind of idea is not unique to the United States.  In several countries a person accused of a crime can pay money instead of going to jail.  It may be a formal procedure.  You might be sentenced to  thirty days OR a thousand dollars, for example.  In other areas, the payment may be informal.  You pay someone off or make a donation to a fund and let’s forget this ever happened.  In any case, I have interpreted for many defendants who ask if they can “just pay” instead of being prosecuted.

This adds to the confusion when shoplifters of very low-cost items are told by the store guard that they can pay to be let off.  One of the major so-called charities in our area is well known in the court system for having a large private security force policing their stores of donated items.  They then catch shoplifters and have them sign a “civil agreement” to pay usually a few hundred dollars in “damages” to the store – while giving back the items they may have stolen, which are usually worth a couple dollars.

In the cases where I have interpreted, there is a very consistent story.  A poor person tries to shoplift an item.  The store security catches them and takes them to an office.  They have to give back the item.  They are photographed.  They have to show their identification.  They are told they cannot leave.  Then they are offered what sounds like a compromise of misdemeanor.

The guard explains to the shoplifter that if she agrees to pay a special fee to the store of several hundred dollars, the shoplifter and the store can sign an agreement, and that will “settle the case”.  The shoplifter will then call around to friends and family, desperate to stay out of jail and avoid possible deportation for having tried to steal a donated item worth a couple dollars.  Their loved ones show up over the next few hours and hand over cash.  End of story, and lesson learned?  Well, no.  Because in this particular charity, the security guard (or loss prevention officer) then calls the police and has the shoplifter arrested anyway.

No, I am not a fan of the Five Finger Discount and I don’t think that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in mine.  But I do think the punishment should be more commensurate with the crime.  I don’t know why this huge charity store chooses to deal with shoplifting by pressing the person to pay hundreds of dollars, photographing them, taking the items back, trespassing them (with a trespass order) having them cough up what for them and their loved ones is a small fortune, then calling the police on them after all.  In addition to all that, shoplifters are now ordered to go to a class that is intended to teach them about the impact of shoplifting on “our” community.

I was so surprised the first time I heard the story along the above lines.  I thought it was an anomaly until I had heard it a few dozen times.  Some days I would hear five or six stories about this same situation playing out in the same store on the calendar where I interpret for shoplifting.  It has been a while so I don’t know if the policy has changed.  I hope so.

One attorney was asking the client in the jail holding area why he had stolen the particular item that led to his arrest.  It was documented in the case file as a pair of wool socks for 99 cents.  There was a photo attached – a used pair of wool socks.

“So why did you steal them?” the attorney questioned.

“Well you see I am homeless – I sleep in the streets.  And my feet get wet and then I am so cold. I even got bronchitis.  The clinic doctor told me I need to stay warm or I will get pneumonia.  And I have to be able to work.  That’s why I’m here.  I can’t afford to be sick.  Then one of my buddies told me that wool socks, socks made of wool from sheep, stay warm even when they are wet.  That’s why I was hoping to get a pair of wool socks.  But I only had the dollar and it wasn’t enough for the tax and I guess I was tempted so I just put them in my backpack and then I got arrested and they took the socks back. ”

This particular young man was sometimes in a shelter and sometimes on the street. He had no family in the area and had illusions about how easy it would be to get work in this area without papers or language skills.  He described himself as a hard worker.  His friends had put together the 250 dollars that the charity demanded for what he thought was his release.  He was feeling bad that his friends would now have less money to send to their families – especially since it didn’t really help him.

The sock stealing worker kept saying he knew he had done wrong, and he wanted to tell the judge so.  And then explain about his wet feet, and the temptation, and that he knew he shouldn’t have done it, but he was still hoping for mercy.  He was hoping so much that the ultimate punishment for trying to get a pair of wool socks would not end up being jail and then deportation.  He still owed the coyote several thousand dollars for helping his cross the border, and he wasn’t sure what might happen if he got deported and couldn’t pay.  He seemed more bewildered than anything else.  He was trying to make sense of something that makes so very little sense to me.

I am not an economist and I do not claim that I can place a monetary value on everything that happens around me.  But as a human being, I just wonder how useful it is to arrest poor people for trying to get things like a donated pair of used socks and then hold up their friends and family for a couple hundred dollars.  Follow that by having the taxpayers pay a several thousands dollars in court costs on each case by the time you add up the cost of lawyers, judges, probation and the rest.

I doubt many of us donate our clothing expecting it to be used as a lure to extort money from the poor.  Could we possibly have more clothing banks where  folks with good clothes could donate more directly in service of the poor?  This may be possible through our food banks.  I plan to be more thoughtful about where I donate in future.

Some cases stay with you.  I never put on a pair of wool socks without thinking of that young, hopeful, bewildered man.  And the millions of others who are in similar circumstances.  I hope  for the sake of all of us, that we can reach a less brutalizing global economy within our lifetime.

PS: Quite a few readers contacted me to ask if the store chain in question is a for-profit.  No.  It is a charity.  Do your research.