DennisBeaverJuly 18, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

In November 2006 while shopping at her local Target, Amanda “got a nasty impulse to steal some make-up.” She placed the items into her purse and walked out. She had no idea that her shoplifting was all captured on stunningly high quality video.

“We have one of the world’s most advanced video surveillance systems — covering every square foot of our stores — and we are happy to let honest customers know that our shoplifters have helped to pay for it,” I was told by a Target security officer.

“In California, and most other states, in addition to facing criminal penalties, shoplifters pay hundreds of dollars to stores, for the cost of maintaining security systems and paying loss reduction employees. That, and educational programs which help people basically re-set their moral compass, really work, in my experience,” he told me if I promised to keep his identity anonymous.

Just why did this former “big city” police officer ask that I not mention his name?

“It’s because a lot of people feel that first-time shoplifters need to be placed on long-term probation, serve some time in jail, or spend hundreds of hours in community service, but this often does not address the reason they steal,” he explained, adding, “There is a better way — and I’ve seen it work and have actually followed the lives of some of the very people whom I arrested,” he said. In my law practice, I have, too. It’s called Western Corrections.

Across the country, law enforcement is struggling with budget cuts. Counties are looking at reducing or stopping the prosecution of misdemeanors. So, the question — which impacts all of us — comes down to this: Is there something else that can be done which has the proven long term result of reducing repeat offenses, short of stopping prosecutions?

“Study after study reveals that in a large percentage of cases, jail or community service does little to discourage repeat offenses in certain individuals. But what if these defendants could be educated, without a significant cost to them, or to counties — and this educational program changes their behavior? It would make a lot more sense, right?” asks Jeff Scott, president of Western Corrections, based in Salt Lake City. “The answer comes down to values — to teaching basic concepts such as right and wrong — morality — to people who may never have been exposed to these notions in their lives. But it is not just telling them that theft is wrong. We teach them correct principles, and then let them govern themselves.”

What Western Corrections adds — and I’ve seen this with my own clients — is a reason to not steal or violate the law in some other way. These people do not care about the property or feelings of anyone else. They are shown that it is in their interest not to steal — life is better for them by changing their own behavior.

“If all you did as a parent was to punish your children — spankings, lengthy time-outs, yelling at them, in other words, negative experiences without insight, without explanations and advice on why to do things differently, what kind of an adult would you turn out? That’s what courts do, as every contact with the courts is negative. Community service, fines, jail and counseling are all seen as negative,” Scott points out.

“Once you get them to the point where they desire to do better, they will find a way to change their behavior.” With the result of an almost 80 percent non-repeat rate, as opposed to 50 percent with standard court-based methods.”

“In many counties across America, after a defendant has been arrested on a misdemeanor, the case will be evaluated by someone in the D.A.’s office or perhaps by a probation officer, to see if the person qualifies for the Western Corrections course. If the defendant is eligible then everything stops at that point. An offer is made: Sign up for the Western Corrections program, complete it successfully and the case will either never be filed with the court, or dismissed.

“This result is a huge savings for the court system, and defendants are 80 percent less likely to re-offend,” Scott maintains.

What does the course look like?

“Our course is a self-study workbook which presents a large number of real-life, fact situations in which judgment is the key. What can you do in a certain situation versus what should you do, and why? If you want good things to come to you, this means behaving in ways which encourages those things. This seems obvious to most people, but not to many defendants. Not linking consequences with behavior is what got them in trouble. It’s simple and it works.”

In Bakersfield where I practice law, Western Corrections has been a strong presence for more than 13 years. I’ve had a number of clients go through their program, and all reported to me wishing they had been exposed to these concepts years earlier.

If Western Corrections does not have a presence in your county, speak with your D.A. or presiding judge.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.