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Gov. Hochul, Democrats in legislature, disagree on raising retail theft penalties

Governor Kathy Hochul in Latham, NY Mar. 4, 2024.
Mike Groll
Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Governor Kathy Hochul in Latham, NY Mar. 4, 2024.

Governor Kathy Hochul wants to stiffen penalties against retail theft, but Democrats in the State Legislature are pushing back. She appeared with grocery store and other shop owners, who back her efforts.

Hochul, as part of a $45 million plan to combat retail theft, wants to raise criminal penalties for anyone who assaults a store employee.

She highlighted the proposals at a news conference last week at the State Capitol, saying shoplifting incidents involving physical force have more than doubled.

“These individuals are very exposed, especially in a small shop with just one worker. They don't have any way to protect themselves. They're literally on the front line,” Hochul said. “And under this law, assaulting a retail worker would carry the same elevated penalties that we have in place for assaulting a first responder.”

The governor wants to make the crime a Class D felony.

Hochul put the proposals in her state budget plan, where governors have the most leverage to get policy issues passed.

The governor also wants to empower the State Police to investigate and prosecute interstate and even international retail theft rings. She’s set aside $25 million and is directing 100 more troopers to be hired.

The governor spoke as the state Senate and Assembly were releasing their budget plans. Neither included the additional penalties in their plans.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris says the Senate wants to look at other ways to fight retail theft, including targeting repeat offenders.

“From my understanding, the retail workers themselves are not necessarily clamoring for this proposal, and we have a different way of going after the people who are the repeat offenders in that context,” Gianaris said. “We think that's a better approach.”

When Democrats gained the majority in the Legislature in 2019, they moved to reform some of the state’s criminal justice laws, including the controversial bail reform law, which made far fewer crimes bail-eligible.

Some critics say that has contributed to the rise of retail theft, something the Democrats dispute. Many progressive Democrats in the Legislature are not in favor of increasing criminal penalties without first determining any potential adverse impact on communities of color.

Senator Gianaris says democrats remain concerned about the rise in shoplifting though, and will take steps to try to reduce it.

“We are all very sensitive to the problems associated with retail theft and we want to address it,” he said. “It's not so much an outright rejection as a different way of approaching it.”

There is one criminal law change regarding retail theft that Hochul and lawmakers may be able to agree on. A bill sponsored in the state Senate by Brad Hoylman-Sigal would make it a crime to fence stolen items over the internet.

Under current law, someone must physically have the items in their possession to be charged. The change would allow prosecutors to go after online sellers of stolen goods, if they can show that the person knew or should have known that the items were stolen.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.