Court-ordered program works to educate theft offenders

Friday, December 14, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Editor's note: The Missourian was asked not to record the names of STOP participants or include their stories.

COLUMBIA — Mothers hiding merchandise in their baby's strollers, employees stashing shoes in places they thought were secret, and people changing clothes in store dressing rooms, leaving their old garb behind.

When it comes to theft, John Fields, head of security at Columbia Mall, has seen it all.

"There's only so many ways you can steal," he said.

Fields, a retired Boone County Sheriff, along with Columbia Police Sgt. Candy Cornman and Kevin Oeth, a probation officer for the Columbia Municipal Court, guide a monthly court-ordered class, called STOP (Stealing Offenders Program), intended to educate people who've been convicted of theft about the impact of their crimes and what will happen if they're caught again.

Fields — along with a former Columbia police officer and former probation officer — founded the program nine years ago in response to an increase in shoplifting in Columbia. STOP was originally intended to "take the burden off the court system" by preventing repeat offenses, Fields said.

In 2003, the first STOP meeting was held in the Daniel Boone City Building with four offenders. Over the years, STOP has had to change locations to accommodate the growing class, which averages about 25 offenders and is now held in the Municipal Courthouse.

Anyone who is found guilty of a first-time stealing offense of a city code ordinance by the Municipal Court or a misdemeanor by the Circuit Court may also be ordered to attend a STOP meeting.

Most of the people who attend STOP have committed theft at major department stores. Some attorneys even send their clients to the program before they are sentenced.

City Prosecutor Stephen Richey said that STOP is now a standard condition of probation for first-time offenders.

Oeth noted that participants sometimes even include people who are not facing prosecution. "Sometimes it's Mom and Dad that make them go through it," he said. 

The program draws participants from around Missouri and is the only program of its kind in the state. Oeth estimated that around 2,500 people have attended the program so far.

"What started out as three girls and one guy, ended up to be a very large class," Fields said.

At a recent meeting, the group was a mix of men and women, from teens to middle age adults. Cornman asked participants — as she always does — to share their reasons for coming. Then she told some disturbing stories about thefts she has investigated — about shoplifters who were pursued, ran into traffic and were struck and killed by motorists.

She went on to share some national stealing statistics. She told the group, for example, that more than $13 billion in goods are stolen from stores every year (about $35 million per day), that habitual shoplifters steal about 1.6 times per week, and that one in every 48 gets caught.

After Cornman's presentation and a 10-minute break, Fields stepped in to discuss some of the physical and monetary impacts of theft, both for the offender and for businesses. He talked about his own experiences, both in law enforcement and retail security, and encourages those present to consider the consequences they might not have truly considered, such as how their choice to steal might lead to other people being injured.

During the break, Cornman will let Fields know if a participant isn't interacting in the class. Fields then attempts to get everyone talking and reaches out to those who are not getting involved

"At some point in the class I will strike a nerve and get that person's attention where they'll think 'that could be me,'" he said.

Throughout the program, Fields and Cornman asked the students about the nature of stealing and the psychology of those who steal. Cornman asked students if they had enough money to pay for the items they stole. Only four of the 17 participants raised their hands in response.

Oeth, who mostly handles the administrative work, described the interactive nature of the program, which he feels makes it more effective.

"It's very much a dialogue instead of a monologue," Oeth said. "John (Fields) puts it to them pretty good. He talks to them about what can happen and what has happened to folks in the past that have continued stealing. I think it hits them in their heart."

Once Fields completes his presentation, the participants fill out an evaluation of the program and then have Fields or Cornman sign it. Participants are required to submit the form to the Municipal Court Clerk or the Circuit Clerk to receive credit.

Fields said that the program is effective and that he could "count on one hand the number of repeat offenders who have been on probation." 

Municipal Court Judge Robert Aulgur has also seen positive results from the class. 

"I think its done good things, and our statistics would indicate that by the recidivism rate the program has been successful and effective," Aulgur said, "I honestly think the program is pretty successful in getting people to understand that there are consequences to the act of stealing." 

The main goal of the program is to educate — not stigmatize — participants. 

"Shoplifting can be a gateway crime to armed robberies. Once you get the thrill of doing that it can lead to a lot of other things," Fields said. "I feel that my part in this program is giving them some parental guidance or a way to look at the situation in a different light."

Former participants and their families have even approached Fields in public to thank him for the STOP program. "I'll be out at the grocery store and someone will say 'Oh my God, that's the guy from STOP,'" he said.

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