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Desperate for a Fix

Using shop theft and a Second Chance Programme to get tough on the causes of prolific drug-addicted offending

Heroin and crack cocaine, along with the recent explosion in New Psychoactive Substances, are not only blighting communities but drive as much as 50 per cent of all acquisitive crime, and 70 per cent of shop thefts.

Police recorded shop theft topped 385,000 offences last year, but the true figure, based on Home Office assumptions, is closer to 38 million offences. In 2017, we estimate shop theft cost £6.3bn – equivalent to £270 for every household in the country – and more than the average household’s monthly grocery shop.

At the same time, offenders with 36 or more previous convictions or cautions are responsible for an increasing proportion of theft offences dealt with by the criminal justice system – growing from 39 percent in 2010 to more than 60 per cent last year. Over the same period, the even more prolific cohort of offenders, with more than 60 previous convictions, has doubled.

At the root of this problem is a complete failure to tackle the addictions that fuel the bulk of theft, with offenders cycling through a criminal justice system that offers fines, community sentences, short prison sentences and threats, but nothing compelling in the way of true rehabilitation.

It is a broken system that demands fixing and this paper proposes a new sentencing option that would simultaneously offer the offenders a chance of long term recovery, while providing the victims of crime with respite.

Like the crunch of broken glass underfoot – from yet another car repeatedly broken into – or the “broken windows” that signal ungoverned spaces and communities in decay, shop theft speaks to similarly challenging and pervasive social ills among some of the poorest in modern Britain.

As part of our work we have heard evidence that shop theft can be bound up with poorly addressed mental health, while others use the mental health “card” to evade responsibility. In some cases, welfare reform – where it has seen individuals either face a period without benefits or receive reduced payments – is offered as explanation. Gambling has become more accessible, whether through “crack cocaine” fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) or virtual roulette wheels and bingo online, resulting in many developing gambling problems that see precious funds leave their pockets, leaving little to stock the fridge or pay the rent.

We have also heard how individuals with poor financial literacy find themselves taking out expensive payday and other loans. The desire for the latest mobile phone, gadgets, or paid-for television and entertainment packages simply outstrips what even a generous welfare system can sustain.

A lack of confidence or an unwillingness to cook at home, further erodes the real value of household budgets and welfare payments. Finally, we heard that the combination and compounding of these and related issues fuels a false narrative for some that their offending is driven by need, rather than the product of a lifestyle.

But these issues are themselves dwarfed by the problems of substance misuse and drug addiction. Traditional hard drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine, and the more recent explosion in New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), more commonly known as “Spice”, are blighting communities and driving a significant volume of acquisitive crime. Up to 50 per cent of all acquisitive crime is committed by those with a heroin or crack cocaine problem. The proportion increases to 70 per cent for shop theft.