Pass proposed bill to crack down on brazen, organized retail theft

Increasing retail theft threatens the safety of employees and customers and has a ripple effect, funding other criminal activity through the sales of stolen goods.

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Police investigate a 2017 smash-and-grab burglary in 2017 at the Louis Vuitton store on the Magnificent Mile. A proposed law in the Illinois General Assembly would give authorities more tools to prosecute retail theft.

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As the Illinois General Assembly winds down its abbreviated session, lawmakers have the opportunity to pass legislation that would give law enforcement the needed tools to combat organized retail crime.

The legislation would be one of the most comprehensive efforts in the nation against these crimes, serving to dismantle the sprawling criminal rings funded by these brazen thefts. 

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We’ve all seen the coverage of highly publicized smash-and-grab thefts that continue to negatively impact nearly every neighborhood in Chicago, along with major retail locations in the suburbs.

However, organized retail crime is not limited to just the Chicago area. These crimes, which have increased over the last five years, threaten the safety of employees and customers throughout Illinois and have a ripple effect, putting Illinois communities at risk of further crime. What can appear to be unrelated thefts targeting big box stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, auto dealerships and other retailers may be part of larger criminal enterprises that fund other criminal activity, such as the drug trade and human trafficking, through the sales of stolen goods.

On top of safety concerns, it is estimated that organized retail crime and illicit trade have cost federal and state governments nearly $15 billion in personal and business tax revenues, not including sales tax losses. That means less money for the services we all rely on, including road improvements, public transit, police and fire and other important community programs. 

As city officials focus on ways to combat crime and financially rebuild the city, we must not lose sight of the critical importance of also addressing organized retail crime to make all our communities better. 

The Organized Retail Crime Act, supported by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in partnership with the Illinois attorney general’s office, would modernize Illinois law to close gaps that criminals exploit and provide better tools to help hold criminals accountable. The proposal includes dedicated state funds to investigate and prosecute the criminal rings orchestrating organized retail theft. These sophisticated criminal rings operate across county and state borders, targeting retailers to then resell stolen merchandise for below-market value using online marketplaces. The proposal would also strengthen oversight of these online marketplaces, establish stronger rights for victims of organized retail crime and create a statewide intelligence platform to help retailers and law enforcement agencies better coordinate their efforts. 

Under the legislation, those who participate in smash-and-grab robberies, and those who loot supply chain vehicles such as trains and cargo trucks, could be prosecuted for organized retail crime. Prosecutors would also be given discretion to bring charges regardless of where the crime takes place, adding a further deterrent to criminals. 

Perpetrators could also face prosecution by the attorney general via the office’s statewide grand jury, giving law enforcement officials another avenue to hold leaders of criminal rings accountable. The legislation would require online marketplaces to verify the identity of high-volume sellers, a vital public safety component that could stop the flow of funds to drugs, weapons smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism. 

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This common-sense legislation builds on the work of the Attorney General’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force, which was formed in recognition of the connection between organized retail crime and criminal activity by larger criminal enterprises, and to facilitate collaboration between law enforcement agencies investigating specific incidents with the goal of disrupting those larger criminal enterprises.  

As our state looks to recover from two years of disruption caused by the pandemic, policy makers must address crime that is plaguing significant portions of our state and keeping residents away from downtown streets, neighborhood shopping districts and our city’s magnificent entertainment corridors. This essential legislation will help restore safety across the region, by disrupting criminal enterprises that have made residents feel unsafe and weakened our neighborhoods. 

Any other piecemeal approach fails to address the increasing thefts themselves — and the criminal enterprises that make our communities unsafe in the long term.

Kwame Raoul is the Illinois attorney general. Rob Karr is president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

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