Where Did Grandma Go Wrong? A Reflection on Shoplifting.

Attached is an article that I wrote years ago. It still rings true today.



As a prosecutor in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I noticed a disturbing trend in minor crime – older people being charged with petit theft, shoplifting. Since the seventies there has been a growing trend of people in their retirement years shoplifting from retail stores. These are people in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s. That trend has continued, and it’s not just because of hard times. In fact, that is seldom the reason behind the crime.

Why would a grandmother, or grandfather, retired and living in Florida resort to stealing? When I left prosecution in 1986 and began practice as a private attorney, I saw the trend continue, but I saw it from a different perspective. These people supposedly their golden years were coming to me to help them with their arrests for shoplifting. Most times the items taken were very inexpensive, ten dollars or less.

These seniors certainly do not fit our image of criminals. These are our neighbors, our friends, or our parents.

Throughout the years certain similarities emerged as most prevalent among these cases. Because Pinellas and Pasco Counties are unique in their age demographics, they offer a good sampling of this phenomenon and its causes.

These are the most common similarities I have seen in shoplifting arrests in this age group. The value of the items is minimal. The item is normally something inconsequential such as eye shadow, deodorant, make-up, or something of a similar nature. It is almost never food, clothes, or cigarettes. Something that will fit in a purse or a pocket. In almost every instance the person has more than enough money to pay for the items and usually purchases other items at the store at the same time. If the person is married, their spouse is seldom shopping with them at the time. I have found a surprising number of the arrested seniors were or had been in lifelong marriages to the same spouse. Most of those arrested had never been arrested in their life. Most had raised children and even had grown grandchildren.

Most of the people in this group who have come to me have freely admitted that they intended to take the item, but few of them could put into words why they had taken something and not paid for it. In fact, a common request has been that their spouse or children not learn of their arrest. Once the arrest is over and the reality sets in, shame and embarrassment often follow.

If all of this is true, then why does someone who has lived what seems to be a full, rewarding life decide to shoplift. As a prosecutor, I had my suspicions as to why this was occurring. As a private attorney I was able to discuss the reasons in detail. What I found was not really surprising.

Many of the arrestees as you might suspect were people who have moved to this area for retirement. They left the home where they had raised their children and where the majority of their married years were spent. Their contact with their children became less as time passed and their lives were less family-centered. Many times their spouse had other activities that they were not involved in, and activity in general had lessened.

As I talked with people in my office, I began to hear similar tales. Boredom or a feeling or emptiness was often the culprit that they eventually recognized.

Interestingly, in almost every case I found that the person would eventually tell their spouse or children and in every case, not surprisingly, the family was supportive and understanding.

Is there a solution to this phenomenon? Does anyone intentionally say to themselves “I am lonely I think I will go take something?” Of course not. Recognizing the symptoms is difficult. The solution may be different for each individual. After-the-fact solutions are more apparent. Often families or spouses become even closer because of the trauma of the event.

Ultimately the people who have successfully weathered the event find themselves planning or attending more activities, or just talking more with spouses or close friends. Several of my clients have told me later that they found it rewarding to volunteer their time to others or to social groups, churches, retirement homes, or similar organizations. Neighborhoods, condominiums, or mobile home parks often have planned meetings or activities. Where once they were reluctant to join in with a group of strangers, these people have found new meaning and purpose.

There is a natural reluctance in many men or women, either married or widowed, to make contact with groups or organizations that could put them in contact with others with similar interests.

The responses I heard most often were that it was too time consuming to make new friends. More revealing, were confessions that they were embarrassed or reluctant to call an organization to make friends at this stage in their life. Those who took these steps have told me that they are happy they did so. Many organizations exist in our area for seniors with similar interests to meet as well as many volunteer groups. St. Petersburg Junior College offers the opportunity for unique hobby or special interest classes for all ages.

Fortunately, most of these stories have a happy ending. Lessons learned did not result in permanent scars or even criminal records. Years ago, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorneys Office developed a program which allows most of these senior offenders to avoid a criminal record. The Pre-Trial Intervention Program, which lasts a period of months, includes supervision and often a requirement to attend a counseling course regarding life management. Once the program is successfully completed the charges are dismissed.

With early retirements becoming commonplace, and retirees moving a way from their friends and children to come to the sunshine state, the trend may not soon subside.

These arrests are often self-induced – a subconscious cry for help. It is too bad that it may take the experience of an arrest for people to discover the problem and create the solution.