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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has suspended a program that gave first-time shoplifters the option to pay a fee and complete an educational program in exchange for forgiveness, or face potential prosecution.

The Bentonville company Friday confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that it is no longer using a program that was available in about 2,000 U.S. stores and provided by Correction Education Co. and Turning Point Justice. The voluntary programs were suspended earlier this month amid criticism and mounting questions over the past several months about the legality of the practice.

Wal-Mart spokesman Ragan Dickens said the program had been effective in helping the company reduce the number of calls to police and the amount of shoplifting in stores. But the program is among several initiatives that Joe Schrauder -- Wal-Mart's new vice president of asset protection and safety -- is reviewing after moving into the role this year.

"We've had new leadership come in in asset protection, and he's basically taking a long, close look at all of the programs under his watch to say, 'What's right for the business?'" Dickens said.

Programs run by companies like Correction Education and Turning Point have been available to retailers for a few years. Wal-Mart introduced small tests in some stores in 2013.

The "restorative justice" programs come at no cost to retailers, while shoplifting suspects are offered the chance to pay several hundred dollars to complete theft-prevention courses offered by the program providers.

Corrective Education's program costs either $400 upfront or $500 later, according to a company spokesman. The Wall Street Journal reported that Turning Point's program costs up to $425 with about $50 to $75 going to retailers for restitution to cover time spent processing paperwork and any damage to the stolen goods.

Wal-Mart expanded its use of the program amid criticism it had received about the number of times police officers were called to handle shoplifting and other petty crimes at stores.

A Bloomberg News investigation showed that police were called to four Wal-Mart stores in Tulsa just under 2,000 times in one year. A Tampa Bay Times analysis showed that law enforcement agencies logged nearly 16,800 calls from Wal-Mart stores in four Florida counties in one year, though it did not include how many of those calls resulted in police officers going to stores.

Supporters of the programs view them as a way to reduce the number of calls to police and to keep first-time offenders from going through the legal system.

In Texas, the Arlington Police Department said in a news release earlier this year that the Corrective Education program at Wal-Mart helped reduce the number of calls for police assistance by 50 percent, which was the equivalent of more than 12,000 police hours.

Dickens said internal measures at Wal-Mart, including a shift in focus from detecting to deterring shoplifting over the past year, have helped to reduce the number of calls to police by about 35 percent. Its deterring measures included positioning more employees near the doors and adding more store security cameras.

About 2,000 Wal-Mart U.S. stores offered the Corrective Education program, and the recidivism rate for individuals who participated was 2 percent or 3 percent. Dickens said the number of Arkansas stores that offered the program was not available Friday.

"The program was not necessarily part of our prevention plan," Dickens said. "This was a program that was for after the crime had occurred."

Opponents say that providers charging suspects hundreds of dollars to avoid potential criminal charges represents intimidation and extortion.

In 2015, the San Francisco city attorney sued Corrective Education saying the company's tactics were illegal. California Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn ruled in August that the program that involves payments to the company or retailers violated the state's extortion laws.

"I think there is a reason why the lawsuit ruled it was extortion, because that is what it looks like," said Akiva Freidlin, an attorney with the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "Money extracted backed by a threat from someone without process -- that's not good."

Freidlin said the California ruling likely had an impact on Wal-Mart's decision to suspend the program a few months later. It's not clear what impact the company's decision to suspend the programs will have on the providers of the service.

Lohra Miller, who founded Turning Point in 2012, didn't return a message seeking comment. A spokesman for Corrective Education didn't comment on the potential impact Friday.

Dickens said Wal-Mart will go through the "traditional system" of calling police when thefts occur but that suspending the program will not alter the company's efforts to deter shoplifting.

"This program is basically a spoke in the wheel in many different programs and technologies in place," Dickens said. "And it's just one that we're putting the pause button on to get a little clarity."

A Section on 12/23/2017

Print Headline: Wal-Mart ends option of pay or be prosecuted

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