Mike Pisani, director of the Theft Intervention Education and Referral (TIER-1) program at Forest Park Village Hall, puts retail theft costs of American businesses at $42 billion dollars a year. Merchants pass that cost on to consumers in the form of a 4- to 5-percent increase on our purchases.
In Forest Park last year, police reported 538 incidents of theft, most of them retail theft from the "big box" stores in the Forest Park Mall.
TIER-1, is a program designed to stop shoplifting behavior - which accounts for the majority of that $42 billion loss - in its infancy while changes can still be made in offenders and without stigmatizing them with a criminal record, Pisani said.
Here's how the program works: People caught shoplifting are referred by Forest Park police officers to a local ordinance court held in the basement of village hall which is presided over by retired Judge Perry Gulbrandsen. The next step, according to Pisani, is critical. Judge Gulbrandsen has to assess the persons being charged.
"Certain people are amenable to education," said Pisani, "some have made a decision not to be amenable, and some people are incapable of changing."
If Gulbrandsen decides that the offenders have the potential to respond to the TIER-1 approach, he refers them to Pisani's team.
"Our approach is primarily educative," he explained. "I or one of my staff members, who are all trained in both the law and the behavioral sciences, do the teaching. The three-hour course includes registration, questionnaires and information."
"We give them information on the economic and social impact of their behavior," he continued. "We inform them about their legal status and the nuts and bolts of shoplifting behavior. We help them understand their problem and start them on the road to change."
If this approach seems nave or too lenient, Gulbrandsen said that part of the education he gives to offenders is the reminder that instead of being in a local ordinance court in Forest Park, they could be in a courtroom in Maywood facing charges with penalties up to 364 days in jail or fines up to $2,500.
Pisani added that representatives from big stores like Kmart and Walmart, when they have been the victim of consumer theft, always show up at his court proceedings and have the option of suing individuals if they don't pay back the businesses for what they have stolen.
When the offender standing before him is a juvenile, Gulbrandsen said he looks straight in the eyes of the young offender and says, "You realize that you have probably disappointed your mom and your dad very much. They didn't raise you to be a thief, to be a punk. Moms and dads are the heroes of your world. You don't want to disappoint them."
"That's the style I bring," the judge said, explaining that his goal is to change the behavior of these young people. "We're interested in behavior modification. We don't want kids to be known as thieves. We don't want them to be charged. If we can change their behavior, everyone benefits."
When the offender completes the TIER-1 course to the satisfaction of Pisani's team, the recommendation is made to Judge Gulbrandsen to expunge the charge from the offender's record. This is important, Pisani said, because with the Internet making available personal information to the whole world, even a small offense can be a permanent stigma, preventing offenders from being hired or getting credit. The process ends with the offender paying $200, which goes toward the cost of administering the program.
When asked how he responds to charges that his program is too soft on crime, Pisani answered, "First, we can't afford to be 'tough on all crimes.' It costs the state $35,000 a year to keep a person in prison. Second, when you incarcerate people, they, in effect, get graduate degrees in crime from the other inmates, and third, how can you undo the damage done to people once they've been incarcerated? You can get 'tough' with people without incarcerating them."
Judge Gulbrandsen thinks the program has been highly successful. "We keep records," he said, "and in the three years I've been involved, we have not gotten any repeat offenders."
The village administration and police officers agree with the judge.
"From the police side," said Officer Steve Weiler, "it's a great alternative for us in lieu of incarceration or merely imposing a fine. Many times offenders do not see the greater implications of their actions. Through education, we hope to reduce recidivism."