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Teen Shoplifting: Causes and Consequences

It's more common than you might think. And the punishment is far harsher and longer-lasting than you can imagine.

Shortly after 17-year-old Terry (who asked that her real name not be used) moved to Colorado Springs, her new friends urged her to skip choir practice and come to the mall. "We started trying on clothes at this one store, and someone suggested we take them," she says, "so I shoved a $10 belt in my bag." As she walked toward the exit, her cell phone rang. "It was my mom, asking if I wanted to go out to dinner," says Terry. At that moment, store security surrounded the teens. "I have to go," Terry told her mom. "I think I'm being arrested."

The hours that followed were a nightmare. "They escorted us into the security room to wait for the police," says Terry. "I was officially charged with taking $75 worth of stuff, the amount all of us stole, even though my item was only $10. The worst was when my mom arrived. She kept saying I'd never do such a thing. And they were like, 'Listen, lady, we have it on tape.' I finally had to say, 'No, Mom, it's true. I did it.'"

Young Minds, No Brakes

Parents always want to understand why kids steal, says Patricia Ruffini, executive director of Colorado Springs Teen Court (a nonprofit alternative sentencing program), which eventually handled Terry's case. "But most adolescents can't explain themselves," she says. "In rare cases, genuine need is the issue. Some are troubled and looking for attention, or lashing out at authority. And many, like Terry, do it to fit in with peers."

If an explanation for the bad behavior is hard to nail down, what happens in a teen's head—or doesn't—is simpler to decode. "Seventy-two percent of teens say they didn't plan to take anything," says Barbara Staib of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). "Most often these crimes aren't premeditated." Instead, impulse, combined with teens' general lack of judgment, takes over. And when summer comes, with less structure and supervision, there's an even greater chance of this knee-jerk stealing. "The courts and the police tell me that when kids have a lot of free time," says Staib, "it increases the likelihood they'll get in trouble."

Minor Thrills Have Major Repercussions

Shoplifting is a greater problem than ever, driven up by high teen unemployment and tighter family budgets. A leading industry study found that 61 percent of stores have seen a jump in what they call "amateur or opportunistic" theft. And NASP, which provides court-mandated educational programs for non-professional offenders, reports that requests for its services have risen 37 percent since the start of the recession.

Concerned retailers are countering the trend with more prosecutions—regardless of how old the thief is or how much he's stolen. One major chain lowered the age for pressing charges from 18 to 16, and decreased the time stores give parents to get there before police are called, from 90 minutes to an hour. And the cops don't come just for show. Two years ago store detectives caught 16-year-old Ryan (not his real name) stuffing polo shirts under his coat at the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis. "I was arrested, handcuffed, loaded into the back of the cruiser, fingerprinted and put in a cell until my parents came," Ryan says. "It was humiliating." There's a simple motive for these measures—prosecution, along with educational programs, is the number one deterrent to future thefts.

Once a tween or teen is in the legal system, he faces tougher treatment than in the past. "Juvenile courts have become much more punitive," says Sandra Simkins, a lawyer and the author of When Kids Get Arrested. Almost every state has revised its code so that records aren't wiped clean at 18, as they once were, and Internet databases mean even minor convictions may stick. This can lead to difficulty getting into college, earning scholarships and finding work.