PHOENIX — The Arizona State Senate gave a thumbs-up to a bill last week that would make diversion classes an option for those charged with shoplifting across the state.
According to a Senate fact sheet, SB 1476 would “allow a person who is suspected of shoplifting to complete an education program instead of reporting the crime to law enforcement, under certain conditions.” The bill was introduced by Sen. Rick Gray (R-Sun City) and passed the floor vote 22-7 with Sen. Judy Burges (R-Sun City West) not voting.
“My goal is to spare some of these kids this kind of record, give them some good advice to keep them from making that bad choice again,” Gray said. “What kind of harm can that do?”
If somebody is caught shoplifting, the store merchant can give them the chance to complete a diversion class instead of dealing with the police. Shoplifting convictions run the gamut from a class 1 misdemeanor to a class 4 felony depending on the circumstances of the crime and the value of goods stolen. This can mean anywhere from a fine of up to $2,500 with a maximum of six months in jail, to 3.75 years in prison in the most extreme.
For criminal defense attorney Ted Crews, diversion is an excellent option for eligible clients.
“There’s a real motivation to get it done, the least of which is to keep their criminal history clear of a conviction,” Crews said. “From a defense attorney standpoint, we are always in favor of diversion.”
Before conviction, a defendant could be offered a diversion class. The court holds off on passing judgement until the class is completed. Instead of conviction, the matter is dropped. While more common for drug and minor in possession of alcohol charges, there are a number of other offenses that are covered by specific diversion programs.
“Places like the City of Phoenix already have a program like this, so it would probably serve as a model,” Crews said.
However, this isn’t uniformly available in every city or county in the state. Tucson also has a diversion program for shoplifting, focusing on adult responsibility where the Phoenix program emphasizes the impact of shoplifting on the community. While completing these diversion programs prevents a conviction, it comes at a cost: $200 for Phoenix and $275 for Tucson.
Diversion through this bill is handled differently than through city courts. Merchants would offer the program before the police are called, with the class being taught by a third-party company. The program wouldn’t be available to defendants who have previous shoplifting convictions or if they have of declined the program in the past. Representing merchants throughout the state, the Arizona Retailers Association signaled it was in favor of the bill.
“We do have members in the Association who have used a program like this and it has been successful,” ARA Executive Director Michelle Ahlmer said in last month’s committee meeting.
The proposed statewide program prevents the merchant who offers the diversion from charging a fee for that offer — so a thief pocketing goods won’t have to bribe the store owner for the chance to get the charges dropped. However, the diversion programs do cost money — and the bill’s only cost provision is the option of lowering or waiving the fee “based on the defendant’s ability to pay.”
“To me it sounds like a backdoor,” Crews said.
So a shoplifter is a caught and offered the choice between diversion and having the police involved. The class, offered by a third party, costs a set amount — say $275 — but after signing up, the shoplifter can’t pay the full amount. The diversion provider company decides to reduce the fee by $50 and spread the remaining cost over eight months. According to Gray, the process is quicker and less painful than having to go through the police and prosecutor’s office. Crews, on the other hand, sees that red tape as a necessary precaution.
“I like people to go through the court system because there’s a system of checks and balances,” Crews said.
Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.