Posted on February 1, 2024

Democrats’ Next Crime Fight: Retail Theft

Nick Reisman, Politico, January 29, 2024

Democrats want to talk tough on crime in an election year. Their target — shoplifting.

Successfully pursuing retail theft could rob the GOP of a winning message on criminal justice and give Democrats a national roadmap for addressing the issue.

Now New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is waging her own war on shoplifters through a mix of tougher criminal penalties and funding in her $233 billion budget proposal. She wants to create new police teams to address the matter, while offering a tax credit for businesses to help bolster security measures.

Hochul’s move comes as Democrats look to flip five U.S. House seats in New York in the narrowly-divided chamber this year, while Republicans press on with the anti-crime message that has helped them clinch electoral victories throughout the country.


The GOP has effectively linked Democrats to spikes in crime, and tackling shoplifting makes political sense: Voters see everyday items under lock and key or social media videos of thieves picking shelves clean. In New York, Republicans in suburban House districts like Reps. Anthony D’Esposito and Nick LaLota clinched victory in 2022 with a focus on crime and are both facing reelection challenges this year. Across the country, California could be in for a change of direction, with many officials there citing retail theft as a breaking point for the state. Getting tougher policies on crime would be a departure for the state after years of rewritten sentencing laws favored by the left.


And while Hochul views it as a winning move for her party, she will face familiar opposition to her left.


Other liberal Democrats have been reluctant to support tougher criminal penalties, worrying that could lead to a further backlog in the courts and more people in jail. They have instead pushed for more mental health services and alternatives to incarceration.

“I think all of us want to see a world and a state in which no retail theft is happening,” state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, said. “But penalties have not served as deterrence for wayward behavior.”

Retail theft, in part, could be sustaining the concerns that voters have consistently registered with crime as Democrats in blue states have spent years trying to scale back tough-on-crime laws to expand rights to defendants in low-level infractions.

Retailers in big cities like New York and Los Angeles have seen a sharp uptick in shoplifting over the last five years — a problem that coincided with the pandemic. The problem has been most pronounced in New York City, where retailers saw a 64 percent largest uptick in shoplifting between 2019 and the middle of 2023, according to a study of 24 cities released by the Council on Criminal Justice. Los Angeles reported a 61 percent increase during that same time.


And yet Republicans are doubtful her plans will have a noticeable impact.

Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), a freshman Republican who like Lawler is facing a competitive reelection, called Hochul’s approach a half measure.

“I support more funding for law enforcement,” he said. “But until and unless we get rid of bail reform and have tougher penalties for criminals, the governor is just slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound.”