Shoplifting charges have surged in Columbus over the past five years.
According to the Columbus City Attorney's Office, misdemeanor theft charges in retail stores have spiked 55 percent since 2008, while the number of first-time offenders has dropped -- meaning the same people are committing a larger percentage of the crimes.
Bill Hedrick, chief of staff for City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr., said the increase can be attributed to a variety of conditions: better surveillance video at stores; more-aggressive enforcement by merchants; groups of roving bandits targeting retailers; a prolonged lagging economy; and drug-addicted offenders looking for a quick score.
"I think we're doing the initial things right," Hedrick said. "We're trying to be more aggressive, allowing the bench to know of the repeat offenders."
The city attorney's Prosecution Division filed 4,202 theft charges last year -- 600 more than 2012 and 1,491 more than 2008. The total value of stolen merchandise recovered increased from $422,940 in 2012 to $539,642 in 2013. The average value of each theft also increased, from $118 in 2012 to $128 last year.
The city's attorney's office handles only misdemeanor offenses, or those involving thefts of less than $1,000 in merchandise. Felony thefts are pursued by the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office.
Those who have no previous criminal records can join a theft-diversion class in exchange for dismissing the charge, Hedrick said. The program has been a success, with only a 2 percent recidivism rate, he said.
But first-time offender numbers are shrinking locally, Hedrick said. Five years ago, 42 percent of theft charges involved first-time offenders. That number has dived to 20 percent in 2013, meaning four out of five theft cases were perpetrated by individuals with prior criminal charges.
"We keep a list of what we call serial thieves that we track," he said. "You have to have been charged 10 or more times with a theft-related offense."
Hedrick contends that drug addiction is fueling a large number of the thefts. Attorneys representing a client with an identified drug problem can be asked to be referred to drug court, which could result in a treatment option."If we can get through the addiction problem with the individual, we can get through the stealing problem as well," he said.