The Marshall Project’s ongoing look at justice system practices has produced another example of extraction of money from potential criminal defendants, this time in a practice in which Walmart participates.
The shoplifter was caught red-handed at the California Walmart and taken to a back room by a store employee. Until recently, the next step might have been a call to the police, but, instead, the shoplifter was offered another option.
He was shown a short video about how terrible a criminal record would be. He was told that if he confessed to his crime and agreed to participate in a privately run diversion program — six hours of online behavior therapy—-he could avoid arrest, a fine or worse. The cost was $400. The shoplifter would be billed. He signed up.
Later, it turned out, he didn’t have the money, not even the $50 minimum installment required to keep his case out of court. And while eventually he did end up in court, it was not as a defendant but as evidence in a 2015 suit brought by the San Francisco City Attorney, who asserted that the tactics used by the company, Corrective Education Company, were illegal. In fact, the City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, equated CEC’s business model with “a Hobson’s choice, which is really no choice at all.”
“This company has set up a private, pseudo-justice system that is based on profit,” he said, calling the program “textbook extortion.”
A Superior Court judge in San Francisco agreed.
Walmart didn’t respond to a request for comment on the specific case. But the article reports that Walmart has used the CEC programs in at least 2,000 of its 4,600 U.S. stores to decrease shoplifting losses. It hopes the program will allow a cutback in expenses for security workers. It pitches the program as a service to the community by a reduction in police demands — a 35 percent reduction in police calls by stores using the program. The program also claims success in discouraging shoplifters from repeat offenses.
Those caught up in the program aren’t informed about various constitutional rights or diversion programs in the regular justice system, the article notes. Nor does the amount of the item shoplifted matter in punishment. The outcome is the same for a lipstick pilfered at Walmart or a pricey piece of clothing at Bloomingdale’s.