© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Columbus retail theft diversion program could help reduce shoplifting, not charge thieves

Adora Namigadde

Columbus officials are working to decrease retail theft by asking low-level thieves to go through a criminal diversion program.

City Attorney Zach Klein announced a new $50,000 grant that will go towards addressing the root causes of these thefts, such as food insecurity, drug use, mental health needs and poverty. Klein said many thefts are driven by people's needs and the program helps connect them with services that will address these issues.

The grant comes from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Justice System Partners organization and will help expand the city's "Buckeye Diversion" program that helps people after they've been charged. The new program, called "Buckeye Deflection" starts this summer and helps people reach services before they are charged.

Klein told WOSU the program is an innovative way to help people without branding them as a criminal. He said the grant money from these organizations will help tremendously.

"We've had tremendous success with the Buckeye Diversion program. We've had nearly 300 participants go through, and we've had an 80% success rate over those 300 participants, meaning that 80% of the people don't re-offend," Klein said.

The low-level offenders the city attorney's office will work with will largely be impacted by quality-of-life factors like food insecurity, homelessness, poverty, mental illness and drug use.

"So, for example, if food insecurity is one of the reasons why you're committing crime, part of your program is to visit the food pantry in your neighborhood that may be a block or so away from your house that you didn't even know existed," Klein said.

A city press release details the success of the existing program further. Since the Buckeye Diversion program started in 2019, 248 people have participated. In 2023, 24 people successfully completed the program and another 64 participants are currently enrolled in the program.

The release said the quality-of-life issues that drive these crimes disproportionately affect low-income households and people of color. The release said this can exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities when these individuals come into contact with the criminal justice system.

According to the press release, participants are assessed and given individual plans to get their lives on track and turn away from crime. Like Buckeye Diversion, admission to Buckeye Deflection is determined on a case by case basis, and those engaged in violent crime, higher level theft and continued, repeat offenses will not qualify for the program and will continue to be prosecuted.

Klein said strategies like this will help his office and police officers focus on more violent crime. He said complex programs like this are meant to recognize the complex reasons people are committing low level crimes and work to prevent them.

"I think that we as a society have done an injustice to the criminal justice system to think that everyone should be put in jail or alternatively, everyone should be set free," Klein said. "There are individuals that have no regard for the law and my office treats them in a very different way than those that are down on their luck and they need help."

Klein stressed the city is still focused on fighting crime and prosecuting particularly egregious offenses.

"We're not afraid to send people to jail and ask the judge for high bonds and long jail sentences for people who are threatening public safety because of violence, because of guns, because of threats and things like that, that have no place in our society," Klein said.

Columbus was one of five law enforcement agencies in the country to receive this grant money. Others include the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in Louisiana; the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Colorado; the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office in California; and the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office in Tennessee.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.