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Can Restorative Justice Solve Walmart’s Crime Problem?

Walmart is as notorious for high crime as it is for low prices. The retail chain is turning to restorative justice programs to change that fact.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

To most, Walmart is synonymous with low prices. To others, the retail behemoth brings to mind an image of a decidedly asinine smiley face. But to many, the store evokes something far more troublesome: crime.

Walmart has typically relied on local law enforcement to deal with all kinds of crime on company property, but, last week, Timereported that the retail chain is taking on responsibility for at least one type of crime: theft.

Walmart is partnering with Corrective Education Company, a start-up that offers shoplifters the chance to avoid entering the criminal justice system by participating in a restorative justice program that attempts to re-educate offenders about the consequences of their actions. Walmart executives are hoping the collaboration can help the store earn back some of the $3 billion it loses each year to shoplifting and employee theft, though it will do little to prevent the other crimes plaguing the big-box chain.

Walmart employs roughly 1 percent of the United States’ working population, and roughly 90 percent of Americans live within 15 miles of a Walmart storefront. A 2005 Pew report found that 84 percent of Americans patronized the store, with the average customer being a white, middle-aged woman with an annual salary of $53,125.

Though these individuals may be saving money—Walmart prices tend to be 1 to 2 percent lower than bargain competitors like Target—their communities are not necessarily better off. Research has shown that the big-box stores can drive up local crime rates. In Vista, California, for example, arrests at the retail store caused a nearly 25 percent bump in the crime rate.

Walmarts frequently wind up being a greater burden on police departments than other local businesses. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, for example, found that police received 16,800 calls from Walmarts across four Florida counties over the course of a year, which works out to two calls per hour, everyday. Of those calls, more than 50 percent were for cases of general disorder like trespassing and parking violations. So far this year, over 200 violent crimes — at least one per day — were committed at Walmart stores across the nation.

Historically, employee theft has been an even larger problem than shoplifting for retailers.

The hours that cops must spend hanging around Walmarts deterring crime, making arrests, and seeing those cases through in court leaves less time and manpower to police the rest of the city. Police departments across the U.S. have spoken out about the need for more officers to keep response times and overtime costs down, but the tax revenue from the retail chain rarely brings in enough money for the cities to cover such expenses, which makes alternatives like restorative justice programs all the more appealing.

Restorative justice is not the first criminal justice alternative that retailers have turned to. For decades, retail companies have used civil recovery — a process in which retailers can file lawsuits against shoplifters in civil courts (rather than criminal courts) in order to recover the costs of stolen goods. Civil recovery cases can be time-consuming for retailers, but restorative justice programs usually require participants to pay back the cost of the stolen items as well, while avoiding lengthy court processes. “Civil recovery is very much like restorative justice,” says Richard Hollinger, a sociology professor with an expertise on retail theft. “The component that was always missing was the re-socialization, the training program, where you’re not just exchanging money, but you’re teaching the person what the harm is of the crimes they’ve just committed.”

In 2014, shoplifting narrowly beat out employee theft as the greater cause of inventory loss, accounting for 39 percent of inventory shrinkage across the industry (employee theft accounted for 35 percent). But, historically, employee theft has been an even larger problem than shoplifting for retailers, according to Hollinger, who’s spent two-plus decades tracking theft patterns with the National Retail Security Survey. “The larger shrinkage losses over the 25 years are coming from not shoplifters,” he says. “They’re coming from employees.” The usual shoplifting deterrents, such as security cameras and guards, aren’t as effective at preventing internal theft, as many employees know how to beat the (familiar) system. Restorative justice programs could help stores re-coup some of those internal losses.

Restorative justice may not be new, but big-box retailers’ use of restorative justice programs certainly is, and there’s little research yet on how such programs might influence recidivism for shoplifters. There is, however, reason to believe such alternatives are better for offenders than jail time. For one thing, shoplifters are spared a criminal record, which can affect their job prospects. In addition, jail time often increases offenders’ risk of re-offending.

“The worst thing, ironically, that you can do to an offender to maximize his or her recidivism is put them in jail,” Hollinger says. “You’re really putting people into a school for crime.”

Perhaps Walmart holds a key to the future of policing—or the lack thereof.