Weary of a burgeoning shoplifting problem, Juneau is embarking on an experimental approach to reducing petty theft without putting people in jail.
Shoplifting is up dramatically in Juneau over the last year, a problem, authorities say, driven at least in part by substance abuse. City attorneys say prosecuting people is a toothless, fruitless exercise with virtually no consequences.
So, starting this month, a group of 40 to 50 repeat shoplifters will be offered a chance to get dismissal of the misdemeanor criminal case against them if they work with a caseworker on improving their lives. They will also have to pay restitution.
The plan is formally called the Juneau Avert Chronic Shoplifting Pilot Project. Funding comes from a $67,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
It comes at a time when the state is grappling with how best to effectively deter crime in time of vast budget shortfalls.
The shoplifting pilot program idea came out of mounting frustration over changes brought on by Senate Bill 91, the sweeping criminal justice reform bill signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker in June 2016.
On Friday, Walker said at a press conference that he wants lawmakers to reexamine the bill in an October special session with an eye to toughening penalties.
The reforms largely took jail time out of the menu of options for punishing low-level theft, said Amy Mead, the city and borough attorney.
The idea was both to save money in prison costs and to give offenders a chance at rehabilitation without spending time behind bars.
But that left judges in Juneau with essentially no consequences to stop a revolving door of shoplifters beyond imposing fines, Mead said. Shoplifting in Juneau reached a level in the past year where business as usual was no longer an option, she said.
During the past fiscal year, the city and borough of Juneau prosecuted 511 cases related to stealing from a store, including larceny thefts and trespassing. That was up from 321 the previous year, a nearly 60 percent increase.
Cases have involved stealing everything from Skittles and a Pepsi to a drone, Mead said. Most involve the same few dozen people. Some individuals have had five, 10 or more simultaneous open shoplifting cases.
Rampant shoplifting sucks up police and court resources and frustrates retailers sick of what seems like theft with no consequences, she said. The pilot project, the first of its kind in Alaska, is an example of the post-SB 91 environment in which low-level crime is seen as a symptom of deeper problems like addiction, mental illness or homelessness. It seeks to treat the root of the dysfunction instead of punishing with jail time.
"We can't use the stick of jail," said Susanne DiPietro, the head of the Alaska Judicial Council, which helped Juneau get a grant for the project. "Well, we have to use a carrot."
Research shows that putting people in jail for short periods of time for shoplifting isn't an effective deterrent anyway, said Mead.
It also costs the state money it doesn't have, said DiPietro.
"Alaska was putting people in jail for significant periods of time who had stolen a bottle of vodka or a Red Bull," she said.
In 2014, before the criminal justice reform package passed, more than 300 people in the state charged with shoplifting were sent to prison.
"We were putting basically shoplifters in jail for an average of 23 days each, at the cost of $41 a day to the state," she said.
SB 91 eliminated jail as a punishment for theft under $250, for at least the first two offenses. Chronic repeat shoplifters can get five days of suspended jail time plus six months' probation.
Sydney Mitchell, the owner of Shoefly, a women's shoe boutique in downtown Juneau, said her store has had a threefold increase in major shoplifting, including one incident in which a woman stole more than $1,000 of merchandise, she said.
"I ask myself, why? What is at the root of someone coming in and needing to steal at that kind of a level?" she said. "How did they lose their connection to ethics?"
Mitchell said she's eager for creative solutions.
Here's how the program will work:
Participants would first meet with a caseworker for "motivational interviewing," a term that means being asked about their legal and personal situations, including where they live, any substance abuse problems and health issues, said Talia Eames with Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska's Second Chance Reentry Program.
The person would be asked to come up with a "small, measurable goal," like filling out job applications or getting on a waitlist for housing, Eames said. The caseworker could also be a first contact for helping the person get services like substance abuse counseling or veterans benefits. They would also attend a program offered by the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health that uses cognitive behavioral therapy approach designed to nudge participants to "address the thinking underlying the behavior" of shoplifting, according to a funding request for the effort.
To graduate from the program, the person would have to complete the counseling, achieve their goal and pay restitution.
Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy are already used widely in rehabilitating people serving sentences in jail for more serious crimes.
But people charged with misdemeanors — which make up the bulk of all criminal charges — have mostly been left out of efforts to use an encounter with the criminal justice system as a chance to launch positive change.
"We have to look for creative solutions in times like these. We're in a budget crisis and an opioid epidemic," Mead said.
Will asking shoplifters to go through the program actually stop them from stealing? Nobody knows yet. Organizers plan to track how participants do. If it works, the model could be extended around the state.
"I think people are skeptical this is going to be successful," Mead said. "But they are appreciative we're going to try something."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the number of cases in Juneau related to stealing from a store increased by nearly 40 percent using the most recently available annual statistics. The increase was actually 60 percent.