I have written before about how people are often treated severely for the most petty of crimes, such as shoplifting a toothbrush or a single 12-oz can of beer. There was even the tragic case of the manager of a drug store chasing and catching someone who stole a tube of toothpaste and in the process of subduing him, the man was strangled by the manager and bystanders.
Then recently I came across this police report from the campus police of my university. “A student reported that while walking on Juniper Road at the above address he was tackled from behind by the below described suspect who fled with the victims personal pizza.” The description was that of a “Male wearing a white hooded sweatshirt, 18-20 years old and approximately 5’10” nothing further.”
A personal pizza? What would make someone risk being put in jail for stealing a meager single meal? Did the do it for a lark? Or was he so hungry that he felt he had to take the chance?
In one case in North Carolina, police were called in to catch a woman who had stolen $36 worth of food from a supermarket. When the police went to her home, they found the fridge bare and learned that the woman and her child had been without food for three days and that she had stolen the food because her child was hungry. While the woman was appearing before the magistrate, the police officers and their colleagues collected money to buy food for them. The woman has been charged with theft (I assume the supermarket did not choose to drop the charges) and is now awaiting a court date.
There is something wrong about a society where people feel the need to steal such basic everyday items of personal hygiene such as a toothbrush or toothpaste or a small amount of food.
And then there are the thefts that are mystifying, at least to me.
Willoughby police are looking for four men in connection with the theft of a baby bird that will die without proper care. A baby pineapple green-cheek conure was stolen about noon Saturday from the Pet Paradise store on Euclid Avenue, near the intersection with East 355th Street, Willoughby police said in a post on its Facebook page. Authorities say three men in their 20s and one older man went into the store. Three of the men distracted a clerk while the fourth took the bird. The baby bird must be hand-fed or it will die, police said. Anyone with information on the theft or where the bird might be should contact Willoughby police at 440-953-4212.
I had never heard of a conure bird before but assumed it is an exotic species. It turns out that it is a kind of parakeet and the cost of it can run to around $400.
Given that this was a targeted, planned crime involving four men, I guess there must be some kind of underground market for stolen birds that makes such thefts worth their while.
Marcus Ranum says
One explanation may be that for some people, the excitement of stealing becomes self-reinforcing. It feels good to steal something and get away with it, so every time they steal something, they feel better -- it’s a classical operant conditioning feedback loop.
I’m not fond of psychological accounts, but that one does sound plausible (and I suppose I’m a bit of a Skinnerian)
There are cases of wealthy/famous people who steal insignificant stuff. Or, relatively, for them. Winona Ryder, who was a multimillionaire at the time, was arrested for shoplifting $4,000 worth of stuff from Saks 5th Ave.
Many years ago I read that the Inca had the death penalty for theft, but with the exception that if you were stealing food because you/your family were without food, the “mayor” of your area got the penalty instead. I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that story, and I sure don’t think it would work out well in our lawyer-ridden world today.
Not to mention that I, at least, wouldn’t be too eager to run for mayor.
With that type of theft, some of it’s desperate people, and then others are just stealing for the thrill. Perhaps a problem with how these cases are dealt with comes down to bias. If the assumption is that people who steal are never really desperate or in need, and are all just doing it for amusement or from some sense of entitlement, people will get more aggressive. There’s also the issue of who reports thefts and who deals with them -- are low wage workers in customer service more likely to be sympathetic, or are management (the people who keep wages low) more likely to be harsh and take a ‘no excuses’ approach? Then there’s the question of racial biases and such.
Overall, the responses seem heavy handed, and given the likelihood of either police violence or vigilantism, it’s way out of proportion to the loss
bluerizlagirl . says
On much of the Continent, hunger is a valid legal defence to a charge of stealing food.
This is pretty unlikely to make its way across the Channel now, though …..