A California court said it was extortion for the retailer to tell suspects it wouldn’t prosecute them if they paid for an education program instead.
Until recently, a first-time shoplifter caught in some 2,000 Wal-Mart stores had a choice: pay hundreds of dollars, complete an education program and all will be forgiven, or don’t and potentially face prosecution. Corrective Education Co. and Turning Point Justice, Utah-based firms that provide the programs, had emerged as alternatives to the overtaxed criminal justice system, the Wall Street Journal reports. They spare law-enforcement resources and hold offenders accountable without leaving the scar of a criminal conviction, supporters say. Wal-Mart suspended the programs this month as local officials questioned the legality of asking people for money under threat of criminal sanctions. A California court ruled in August that Corrective Education’s program violates state extortion laws.
Although the programs have reduced Wal-Mart’s calls to police and likely curbed the number of repeat offenders, “it’s not welcome everywhere and I want to understand that better,” said Wal-Mart VP Joe Schrauder. “We want to make sure we are partnering with local government.” Tens of thousands of first-time shoplifting suspects have paid for the educations programs. Suspects at stores that use Corrective Education are shown a video and given 72 hours to decide whether to enter the program. The video describes a six-to-eight-hour online course that promises to explain “why you make decisions that are harmful or illegal” and teach “life skills.” If a suspect declines to pay for the program—$400 up front or $500 later—the retailer may choose to pursue “other legal rights to seek restitution and resolve this crime,” the video says. About 90 percent of suspects enroll.