Behind bars

gazette file and istock photos

Some on Aurora City Council want mandatory jail sentences of at least three days for those who steal $300 or more in retail goods – but a proposal to do just that drew criticism from progressive council members who argue that jail time won’t deter people from committing more crimes.

The proposal, which Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky introduced at Monday’s meeting, received initial approval from the city council. Councilmembers Alison Coombs, Juan Marcano and Ruben Medina voted against the bill. Councilmember Crystal Murillo was absent.

The ordinance will return for a second reading before it can receive final approval.

Jurinsky brought the proposal to the table in response to an increase in retail theft in the city's Havana Street corridor. That area saw more than 36 thefts in 2017; 34 in 2018; 36 in 2019; 30 in 2020; 39 last year; and, 20 to date in 2022. The ordinance also references an increase to organized retail crime. 

At committee meetings, police department representatives have said that, while city data does not indicate a serious spike, it shows an increase in retail theft over the past five years. Police also believe retail theft is underreported.

The debate on Monday night over the proposal grew tense at times.

Marcano criticized the proposal for not including a fiscal note – an estimate of how much it would cost Aurora to implement – a sentiment echoed by Mayor Mike Coffman and Coombs.

Although Coffman supported the proposal, he said procedurally every ordinance should have a fiscal note. Jurinsky fired back, saying other councilmembers were siding with criminals by focusing on them and the lack of a fiscal note. She said she focuses on the victims of retail theft.

"I refuse to let this ordinance get hijacked,” she said.

Coombs said a fiscal note is how the city gauges whether it can afford the policies it implements, and that asking for one is not the same thing as siding with criminals who commit retail theft.

Jurinsky said that a three-day stay would not be overly costly, and that the city’s jail has minimized its expenses.

Marcano and Coombs pushed for alternatives to jail, saying diversion and restitution are better remedies.

“Jail is literally the worst thing you can do to change behavior,” Marcano said.

Jurisnky said the city already requires restitution. Asked by Marcano if she considered other solutions than jail time, Jurinsky said she did not.

“I believe it’s time we start putting people in jail,” she said.

At an August meeting for the Public Safety, Courts and Civil Service Policy Committee, Chief Cassidee Carlson with the Aurora Police Department said she recently attended a Havana Street business improvement district meeting where retail theft was the group’s main concern.

Major box stores have brought in their regional loss prevention managers, who said stores in Aurora are some of their highest grossing units but they are worried about losses from theft, Carlson said.

Shoplifting is a perplexing crime for patrol officers to tackle because the suspect is usually gone by the time police can respond, she said.

“It’s not very efficient for a patrol officer to respond to a cold shoplift, where we don’t know who the person is,” Carlson said.

When an officer is able to contact a suspect, the latter is typically served with a summons for misdemeanor cases, she said.

Carlson told committee members that the city is looking at ways to begin identifying and investigating “the prolific shoplifter.” That includes streamlining the process for a business to report thefts, providing an online platform for them to make a report, and encouraging retailers to tell police when a crime occurs.

There is now a designated detective who can serve as retailers’ point of contact and will look at each shoplifting case in an effort to spot patterns, and potentially pinpoint habitual shoplifters, Carlson said.

Councilmember Steve Sundberg said he wanted to dispute the notion theft is not a serious problem for the corridor, at one point cutting Carlson off when she said statistics don't show major problem.

“Let me interrupt you right there, and just say if you own one of those businesses and it was a private business, and you are experiencing those thefts, then it is a major issue to you,” he said. “As a business owner, it’s a major issue.”

Carlson agreed that it is an important issue to address.

“That’s why we are working to be better,” she said.

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