On May 8, 2024
State News

Legislators debating bill to stem repeat shoplifters and clear up court backlogs

By Norah White, Community News Service

Editor’s note: The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Lawmakers are weighing a bill to punish repeat shoplifters who otherwise would only face a string of misdemeanors — a move to discourage rising retail theft and clear court backlogs the state has been facing since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bill, H.534, passed the House last month and is now being discussed in the Senate — one step closer to becoming law, though senators are looking at an alternative way to curb the same problem. 

Currently, if someone steals less than $900 worth of merchandise from a store, a misdemeanor, they face up to $500 in fines and six months in prison. Someone who shoplifts more than $900 worth of goods, a felony, faces up to $1,000 in fines and 10 years in prison. To avoid risking the felony while still stealing more than $900 worth of merchandise in a short span, a clever thief could shoplift $899 in goods from one store, then do the same at another.   

The bill would create a new penalty targeting shoplifters who steal multiple things in one county within a two-week period. If the combined value of the stolen goods exceeds $900, an offender would face the same level of fines and imprisonment as the current felony.

The change would have a couple predicted effects, backers say: clearing court system backlogs and discouraging repeat shoplifters. 

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, judges and attorneys have been working through a large backlog of cases, said Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, one of the sponsors of the bill.

Because of the backlogs, there have been instances where a person could rack up multiple retail theft charges in the timeframe before their court date, Notte said. 

Notte, who manages Phoenix Books in Rutland, says it is disheartening to see or hear about shoplifting.  “It’s also very disheartening for the general public who sees or hears about the same individuals disrupting their community,” Notte said.

He said the bill could discourage repeat offenders who right now may only face “several slaps on the wrist with the misdemeanor charge.” 

Retail theft in Vermont is up from pre-pandemic levels, according to FBI data presented in a report to legislators. In 2019 there were 2,022 incidents of retail theft, compared to 2,416 in 2022, the memo says. 

Another report given to lawmakers shows about 58% of repeat retail theft offenders were charged with a new retail theft offense within 30 days of their first charge, based on data from the Vermont Judiciary spanning 2018 to 2023. Most of the new offenses came within 10 days of the first, according to the report.

On average, people convicted of misdemeanor retail theft served about 11 days at minimum, according to the report on Vermont Judiciary data. Those convicted of the felony served an average minimum of just over 7 ½ months, the report says.

The bill is now in the Senate Committee on Judiciary, where lawmakers are considering a slightly different approach. An amendment by Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden-Central, would split the penalty for stealing less than $900 worth of merchandise and scrap the two-week timespan. 

First-time offenders would face up to $500 in fines and 30 days in prison. Second-time offenders would face up to $1,000 and six months. By someone’s third offense, the fine would increase to $1,500 max, and they’d face up to three years in prison. Upon a fourth offense, a person would face up to $2,500 and 10 years in prison.

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