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Do the crime of retail theft? Arizona lawmaker and prosecutor say you'll do more time.

Michelle Ahlmer, executive director of the Arizona Retailers Association, explains Tuesday why her organization wants enhanced penalties for those convicted of multiple counts of retail theft.
Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer.
Michelle Ahlmer, executive director of the Arizona Retailers Association, explains Tuesday why her organization wants enhanced penalties for those convicted of multiple counts of retail theft.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Saying thieves pay attention, a state lawmaker and a prosecutor are moving to enhance the penalty against those who engage in multiple incidents of organized retail theft.
HB 2435 would allow judges to sentence someone who has a record of at least two prior convictions to 4.5 years in state prison. Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said the current penalty is just 2.5 years.
"I have seen, time and time again, that criminals pay attention to sentences and trends within the criminal justice system,'' she said Tuesday. "And word does spread among them.''
Mitchell said that includes people who come from other states, where such crimes may not be pursued and those arrested are released without bail.
"These are groups that work together,'' she said. "So word will spread and it will be effective.''
Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said she agrees that retail theft has become a big problem in her community and across the nation.
It has become more visible as shoppers not only face higher prices but also often find that the goods they want are now locked behind glass shelves, requiring them to find a staffer. And in some communities, stores that have been victimized have been shuttered.
But Conover said she is not convinced that tinkering with sentencing laws is the solution.
The key, she said, is focusing attention on those "professionally minded criminals,'' the ones buying and trafficking in those stolen items from the thieves who have taken them from the stores.
"We have to use our precious resources with higher level investigations that get at those who are profiting off of the problem,'' said Conover. "And we have the penalties that we need to send them away for quite some time.''
What that includes, she said, is the ability to prosecute them for being involved in fraudulent schemes. That is a Class 2 felony which, in the case of repetitive offenders, can mean anywhere from 5 to more than 15 years in prison.
More to the point, Conover said she disagrees with the contention that a 4.5 year sentence for those who are doing the stealing in the first place will make a difference, particularly in cases where those who are doing the theft are driven by mental health or substance-abuse disorders. She said the only way to actually disrupt what's going on is "getting at the root causes.''
"It doesn't matter if you send this person (to prison) for two years or four years,'' Conover said.
"There's no treatment in prison,'' she continued. "So they either come out, in two years or four years, in a worse place or in worse shape. And we've done nothing but pay top dollar and burned that taxpayer dollar.''
Still, she said, people who are arrested repeatedly and "are not getting with the program'' are already facing felony charges.
Mitchell said has a different view of those who are engaged in retail theft. And the key, she said, is that in order to be convicted of this crime they have to be found guilty of having an intent to resell what they have stolen.
"This goes back to debunking the false narrative that is out there that the people that we're looking at are people who are just shoplifters who are shoplifting single items in order to support themselves, feed themselves,'' Mitchell said.
"That is not what is happening here,'' she said. "What is happening is these people are targeting stores and taking either large quantities or items with large resale values like alcohol or cosmetics and they are sending it to a fence.''
And those proceeds, said Mitchell, go into what she called "the stream of criminal commerce which includes funding all sorts of other criminal activities.''
Michelle Ahlmer, executive director of the Arizona Retailers Association, which got House Speaker Ben Toma to sponsor the legislation, said all this is different than shoplifting. That is a separate crime, with the penalty based on the value of the stolen items.
So, for example, someone found guilty of lifting something worth less than $1,000 could be sentenced under laws making that a misdemeanor, carrying six months in the county jail with a possible $500 fine.
Steal something worth more than that and the presumptive sentence is a year in state prison.
"We actually have resources, in some cases, where we can help them,'' Ahlmer said. But this, she said, is different.
"This is an organized retail crime, you can even go so far as to say syndicate,'' Ahlmer said. "We have apprehended people who have shopping lists, who are told not to steal above a certain level because they will have a higher felony. This is not your average person walking in and putting something in their purse and walking out.''
Ahlmer said there's a reason this kind of theft has blossomed.
"The burgeoning effect has happened because certain states, certain communities have turned a blind eye to prosecuting,'' she said. "And we are lucky that in Arizona we are lucky that we don't have that situation thanks to Rachel Mitchell and some of the other support we've had throughout the state.''
Ahlmer and Conover do agree on one thing: Any retailer who sees this going on should not try to detain a suspected thief.
"We do not apprehend,'' said Ahlmer.
"That is for the safety of our staff and the safety of our consumers,'' she said. "We don't want anyone to get in the middle of a conflict.''
Instead, she said, incidents can be pursued later with evidence from cameras.
Conover sees it through the lens of what she calls "ongoing threat of harm.''
"We are perhaps less concerned by a corporation losing $20 of food or what have you than we are the person that is told to leave the property and, instead of leaving the property turns around and is very aggressive back on the employee,'' she said. And Conover said that law enforcement is more focused on that kind of assault than the underlying theft.
The legislation is awaiting a hearing in front of the House Commerce Committee.
On X and Threads: @azcapmedia