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August 21, 2019

Noticing the tendency for criminal justice reforms to become a scapegoat for all sorts of crime concerns

One of the many challenges of engineering enduring criminal justice reforms can be the tendency of some folks to attribute any new crime concerns or problems (or perceived new concerns or problems) as a harmful consequence of reforms.  All sorts of crimes and crimes rates fluctuate for all sort of reasons, but all to often there is a tendency to want to blame any significant reforms for any new crime issues even when there is little logical connections between the new reforms and the new issues.  This local article from Oklahoma, headlined "QuikTrip questioned on assertion that crime at its stores is up 300% because of SQ780," highlights these problematic dynamics:

Following the passage of a criminal justice reform state question, property crimes in Oklahoma became worse compared to other states in which QuikTrip operates, the company’s manager of public and government affairs said.  QuikTrip’s Mike Thornbrugh spoke Tuesday to the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council, which is pondering recommendations to changes to criminal justice laws....

Passed by voters in 2016, State Question 780 downgraded several nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and reduced their associated sentences. It also increased the property value to $1,000 from $500 for a felony offense.

“The property crimes last year have increased over 300%,” Thornbrugh said. “And the lost inventory in Oklahoma is four times higher than anywhere else that we operate.”  He said the root of the problem is the increase for the dollar amount constituting a felony.  “The biggest item dollar-wise at QuikTrip is probably a carton of cigarettes, which is around $60,” Thornbrugh said. “So what we are experiencing, it takes 15, 20, 25 times for an individual to steal before (prosecutors) can even consider filing a felony.”

QuikTrip has increased security and put locks on cabinets and drawers behind checkout stands and on cooler doors for some items, he said.  But now criminals are breaking off the locks. “We are here to ask you today as you go through deliberations, please understand not everything fits every size,” Thornbrugh said. “We are concerned about the habitual career criminal. That is how they make their livelihood. We are not going after somebody that comes in and steals a donut because they are hungry.”

Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz questioned Thornbrugh on his claims. “You mentioned that you were in numerous states,” Ravitz said. “Every one of those states you are in have a higher felony limit than the $1,000 felony limit that Oklahoma has. How come we have the problem that you are enunciating that other states don’t have?”

“Bob, I wish I could give you that answer,” Thornbrugh said.  “All I can do is to tell you the statistics we have and what we deal with day in and day out in those various states. I am not trying to avoid your question. I don’t know. We would like to know the answer to that, too.”

Ravitz said he didn’t understand Thornbrugh’s statement that the increases came after the implementation of State Question 780. Noting that nearly all of the items sold in QuikTrip cost less than $500, Ravitz maintained that raising the limit to $1,000 would not have had any effect.  QuikTrip may have seen a huge increase in crime and thefts, but it would have happened regardless of increasing the felony threshold to $1,000, Ravitz said.

Thornbrugh said there has always been theft but that the company is now seeing the same people stealing over and over again. “My point to you is a lot of these people who are habitual (offenders), they don’t care,” Thornbrugh said, adding that the thieves think nothing will happen to them. Thornbrugh said those who steal are reselling the products.

When contacted by the Tulsa World, the leader of the group that pushed for State Question 780 also dismissed Thornbrugh’s statements. “According to the data, the property crime rate in Oklahoma is at the level it was in 2016,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “Property crimes tend to fluctuate year to year.  The larceny rate actually decreased in 2017 following the implementation of State Question 780 reforms but rose slightly in 2018 to 2016 levels. There is no correlation between crime rates and felony thresholds, including states that have higher thresholds than Oklahoma.”

I suppose it is plausible that petty thieves in Oklahoma somehow felt embolden to steal more cigarettes from QuikTrip convenience stories after the state passed a vote initiative that raised the felony threshold for theft.  But, as this article highlights, this does not seem to be the most obvious reason for why QuikTrip may be having such problems with theft in the Sooner State.  And yet that story that QuikTrip’s manager of public and government affairs is pressing.

August 21, 2019 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

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