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Explanation or Excuses for Stealing?

The criminal creates confusion.

When offenders are held accountable, unless they make a full confession, they offer explanations for why they behaved as they did. Their after-the-fact statements are usually intended to gain sympathy and minimize culpability. They focus on people and circumstances outside themselves. Often their statements sound plausible even to seasoned criminal justice and mental health professionals.

When a criminal is interrogated or interviewed about his illegal conduct, two evaluations are occurring simultaneously. The detective, psychologist, or other interviewer is examining him. But he is doing what he has done all his life, namely casing out others to target any vulnerability. The criminal counts on outsmarting his interrogator. He has been doing this since childhood when he was called to account for his behavior by parents, teachers, and others.

Some of the “explanations” appear absurd even to a relatively inexperienced interviewer. For example, when apprehended, shoplifters say things like, “Everybody does it,” “the store overcharges to begin with,” “the store won’t miss it,” “I didn’t have the money.” These transparent excuses after the fact have little bearing on the actual motivation to steal.

A person who steals things that he already owns, can easily afford, or does not want or need can be baffling. Mental health professionals may think that his stealing can be explained by a psychological disorder. The habitual thief may appear to suffer from a compulsion (“kleptomania”). He may be seen as resorting to stealing as a way to “feel better” while coping with depression or adverse circumstances over which he has no control. Perhaps a person steals to boost his self-esteem. One woman who shoplifted for years before being apprehended jokingly referred to herself as a “consumer representative.” She took orders from friends, stole the items they “ordered,” then sold the merchandise at a significant discount. She maintained that shoplifting was the one skill she had that others appreciated. She said her parents seldom praised her but her “customers” did.

If a criminal doesn’t have enough excuses for crime, mental health professionals provide more. “Kleptomania" may exist in the minds of mental health professionals but it is a concept that offers an excuse rather than an explanation. A so-called “kleptomaniac” is actually someone who steals frequently and becomes good at it. He surveys the situation. If he spots security devices or personnel, he is not compelled to steal. He makes a series of choices as to when to steal and calculates when conditions are optimal.

“Feeling better” has little relevance to relieving depression. Thousands of people are depressed but are not tempted to steal. However, habitual thieves experience a rush or “high” at every phase of the crime. It is the excitement of the enterprise that is paramount – deciding which store to target, entering and scanning the premises, pinpointing weakness in security, figuring out the best way to swipe the item, then making a clean getaway.

As for the thief who called herself a “consumer representative,” it is impossible to know whether she was being truthful about her parents. Perhaps they did not trust her because, even as a child, she was lying, stealing, and misbehaving in other nefarious ways. If so, there would have been little worthy of praise. Even if they were truly mean parents, what did that have to do with her stealing?

Poverty has been considered a “root cause” of stealing. However, most poor people don’t steal and many who are well off do. A woman who declared she was forced to steal to buy formula and diapers for her baby might convince others to feel sorry for her. However, in 2017 in the United States, no one is forced to steal to obtain such necessities that are readily available through a variety of programs and agencies.

Peer pressure is another factor frequently cited by youngsters as their reason for shoplifting. Peer pressure to shoplift does occur. The question is whom does a youth choose as peers? Kids and adults gravitate to others who share their interests. The boy who claims, “All my friends are doing it” is disclosing a lot about his choice of friends and therefore revealing something about himself.

It is critical in understanding motivation for crimes not to be deceived by perpetrators when they are held accountable and are searching for ways to evade culpability and to minimize the consequences that follow.

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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