OC HIGH / STUDENT NEWS AND VIEWS : Stealing From Their Future : Crime: Some teens shoplift for trendy clothes and cheap thrills. Whatever the reason, it ends up costing them--and us.

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Tricia remembers the first--and last--time she stole anything. When the 16-year-old walked into Montgomery Ward with a group of friends, she says her heart was pounding: “I thought I was going to get caught.”

She did.

“We had all walked in the store together,” she said. “One of my friends had got a bag for everybody and we put the shirts in the bag. I was scared. We saw a security guard and dropped the stuff. Then some more security guards came in the door we were going to leave. . . . They handcuffed us and put us in the office.”

Guards took Tricia and her friends to the police station, where she was booked and later put on informal probation for six months.


“I was shocked,” her mother, Janet, says. “She didn’t have to do it, because she gets everything she wants.”

Tricia says she shoplifted mostly “ ‘cause my friends were doing it.”

Although store managers and security experts agree that shoplifters can be any age, initiation often begins in the teens, and sometimes among kids as young as 10 or 11.

In 1992 (the most recent reporting year available) in Orange County, 10,203 juveniles 17 years old and under were arrested for petty theft offenses, which includes shoplifting. That was a drop from 1991, when there were 11,377 arrests. In 1983, juvenile arrests for petty theft only numbered 8,858, but had been on the increase until 1989, when it leveled off, according to county Probation Department officials.

Psychologists say more girls shoplift than boys, but store owners and law enforcement officials say the numbers of those apprehended are about evenly split between the sexes.

Most youths steal because of peer pressure, the thrill of breaking rules or simply because they want something.

For others, the reasons are darker. Psychologists say the thrill and danger can provide a rush that temporarily relieves depression or fills unmet emotional needs.


And a few make the leap from prankster to professional, devising elaborate schemes and learning early the lucrative rewards of selling hot merchandise.

Clinical psychologist Edna Hermann divides teen shoplifters into two groups: normal teen-agers looking for excitement and kleptomaniacs.

For most youths, she says, shoplifting is an expression of normal teen rebellion and satisfies real material wants.

“It’s maybe part of the peer culture,” she says. “There is the rush of danger. Would they be caught? Wouldn’t they? There is also wanting something they need immediately. ‘If I have this lipstick, I will be beautiful for my date.’ At a home where the family is on a budget and there isn’t money for all the frills, this satisfies the need for beautiful things.”

Sometimes, though, shoplifters try to fill an empty space in their lives by pouring in pilfered items.

“Sometimes people steal to replace the emotional deprivation, the lack of love, lack of attention they feel at home,” Hermann says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the value of what they steal. They are replenishing depleted emotional supplies for themselves.”


Along with traditional traumas of adolescence--dates, grades and parents who just don’t understand--teen-agers today face life-threatening crises that generate a powerful need for escape, says clinical psychologist Michael Peck. And some use shoplifting as an antidepressant, much as some people use drugs, he says.

“We see a lot of depression in young adolescents. Years ago, we thought teen-agers could not get depressed. It’s harder for a child to enter adolescence in the ‘80s and ‘90s than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s more achievement-oriented (now). There’s more scary threats. Thirty, 40 years ago, we didn’t worry about drugs, didn’t worry about gang violence,” he says.

And the struggle to provide materially for their children may leave parents less time to help teen-agers through the terrors of growing up, Hermann adds.

“They could have all the money in the world and they’ll shoplift, just to get their parents’ attention, because they’re not giving them love,” says one 17-year-old shopping for shoes at a mall.

On the other hand, parents who don’t heed their children’s need for independence may inadvertently encourage them to shoplift as well, says clinical psychologist Robert Rome, adding that youths who lack privacy at home may not respect private property of store owners.

“My two friends were, like, neurotic until they got caught,” said a 19-year-old. “They were always shoplifting clothes. . . . One of them, she was an abused child. She used to run away all the time.


“The other one, her parents were divorced and she lived with her father, and he was a wacko. He’d take her stuff and keep it. . . . They didn’t have any privacy, that’s true. And plus, they did need new clothes and they couldn’t afford any.”

The conflicting desires of teen-agers to establish their individuality and to fit in with the group find a focal point in fashion. Styles change by the season, month or week, and an urgent need for $100 running shoes or $50 jeans can keep kids racing on a treadmill to win acceptance.

Those who fall behind fashion trends meet with derision, says a 16-year-old browsing at a mall. “These days, kids are supposed to have an image. If you don’t wear the kind of clothes, or the makeup, they misjudge you, they think you’re stupid. . . . They think you’re poor and they don’t want to talk to you. If you dress house, with baggy pants, clothes that are in, they think you’re cool.”

Those taunts can be hardest on children of immigrants, she says. Struggling to adapt to American expectations, they may be ridiculed for wearing clothes traditional to their culture.

While some youths race to follow the dictates of fashion, others shoplift to capitalize on them.

“They shoplift and bring it to school and sell it,” says a 16-year-old. “If shoes cost $100, they sell them for $45 to $60, depending on the brand. They go to different places, three times a week. . . . They know it’s wrong, but they do it because they need the money, they want the money. A boy on my block does it. He’s about 11.”


Stolen compact discs--small, light, with high resale value--can also be profitable.

“It’s big business,” says Sheri Lunn, manager of a Wherehouse. “We have people called boosters. They’re professional shoplifters who do it for a living. They’ll get 15 of the same thing. They can be in and out in anywhere between 15 to 30 seconds.”


Leif Lauritzen, executive director of the Stores Protective Assn., puts annual losses from shoplifting at $2 billion to $4 billion nationwide. And stores pass that on to customers. Five to eight cents of every dollar spent in stores is related to shoplifting losses, he says, and ends up costing a family of four about $500 yearly.

Stores respond by stepping up surveillance and installing high-tech monitors to catch thieves. And the tug of war between shoplifters and store security escalates with each advance.