Quelling a shoplifting compulsion

Newport Beach program helps petty thieves who steal for psychological rather than financial reasons.

October 26, 2011|By Lauren Williams
  • Nancy Clark, a criminal justice consultant who deals with alternative sentencing programs, speaks with Joseph Mendoza, 32, of Brea, a DUI offender at her office in Newport Beach on Thursday.
Nancy Clark, a criminal justice consultant who deals… (Kevin Chang, Daily…)

NEWPORT BEACH — Some people call them teacher of the year, family doctor, engineer or Girl Scout leader.

Nancy Clark calls them clients.

For 15 years, Clark has run a shoplifting addiction treatment program on Old Newport Boulevard. Many clients attend in lieu of possible jail or prison sentences.

Despite stereotypes about petty thieves snatching items out of financial desperation, many of the folks in the program are well-to-do. They see shoplifting as an addiction that gives an endorphin rush on par with drugs.

One prerequisite for clients enrolled in Nancy Clark & Associates Inc.'s treatment program is that clients only steal items they can afford. The program is not for those who steal to support a drug or alcohol addiction — there's another group for them.

Clark enforces a strict dress-and-grooming code during the 12-week program: no tank tops, men must be clean-shaven, and hats and sunglasses are forbidden.


"I don't want somebody to look like the Unabomber when they come to my office in the morning," she said.

That isn't an issue for many in the largely female group. Many of the clients are professionals or publicly lauded in the community, but quietly steal items to satisfy an urge often begotten by feelings of loneliness, anxiety or frustration in their personal lives.

"The clientele I work with usually can afford the products," said program director Kathy Escher. "They are professionals. … The risk-taking in shoplifting can work as an antidepressant. It's just like any other high with any other addiction. The pleasure area of the brain that's stimulated can be addictive."

Many of the stolen items are meaningless or unusable to those who take them. Clark knows of someone who stole a single shoe and another who amassed three storage units worth of items, spanning a 25-year "career."

According to Clark, some shoplifters are triggered by small stores filled with tchotchkes, while others feel a compulsion to act out in the aisles of big-box retailers.

The program aims for the root of why clients steal, emphasizing individual treatment coupled with group counseling to build a support network where they can share feelings that compel them to steal. By the group's estimates, they have a 4% recidivism rate of those who re-offend after completing the program.

One client named Elizabeth, 42, has been a stay-at-home mom for 20 years. She said Clark's program helped her understand that she isn't alone in her struggle with shoplifting.

Daily Pilot Articles Daily Pilot Articles