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Shoplifting: There's More to the Story

Does someone caught shoplifting need punishment or help?

Recently in the San Francisco Bay Area, a local state Assemblywoman was arrested for shoplifting in an upscale department store: surveillance cameras caught her leaving the store with over $2,000 of merchandise. This event has caught the local and national media's attention due to her political position and the fact that she is married to a judge. Attorneys and spokespeople for the Assemblywoman have released statements that "she unintentionally left the store with the items in her bag and intended to go back." She is insisting the whole thing is "simply a misunderstanding."

Frequently we hear this explanation while we are conducting assessments at the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control, the leading treatment provider for kleptomania and compulsive stealing behaviors. It is an excuse often used by celebrities, people of influence and power, and average citizens, when caught stealing or shoplifting.

Most of us can't imagine how someone could unintentionally place three or four items in a bag, forget or become distracted, and walk out of the store without paying. It is possible the person caught is lying simply because he or she got caught and wants to avoid getting in trouble, or they are thumbing their nose at the rules of society. But it could be they are lying because they are so full of shame they will say anything to avoid total humiliation.

As clinicians working with individuals with compulsive stealing behaviors it is our job to listen, inquire and evaluate how a patient describes what happened at the store prior to, during, and at the moment of arrest during the stealing event. Contained in the story is extremely important information that we must think about and explore deeply with the patient through psychological assessment and, eventually, treatment.

People steal for many reasons, ranging from poverty to criminality. Recent research on dopamine has shown that people can become addicted to activities such as stealing, sex, eating, and gambling in the same way they can become addicted to alcohol and drugs. For this person, stealing is not a rational decision, executed with planning, but instead is a faulty way of coping with unwanted thoughts or feelings. Additionally, other psychological disorders such as kleptomania, bipolar disorder, severe depression or anxiety, dissociative disorder, and even traumatic brain injury can cause people to steal. Individuals with impulse disorders frequently have co-occurring mood disorders and other cluster problem behaviors and addictions.

Our legal system dictates that people suffer the consequences for criminal behavior. That said, there are times when people who commit crimes desperately need help rather than punishment. An experienced and knowledgeable forensic evaluator can help to determine if someone may be desperately in need of treatment, regardless of how believable or unbelievable his or her story might seem.

Elizabeth Corsale, MFT

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.