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Punishments, Fines and Imprisonment For Theft In America

Updated on June 11, 2013
Real-world and Cyber Theft are problems in the USA and the world.
Real-world and Cyber Theft are problems in the USA and the world. | Source

From Hubpages Q & A:

What is an appropriate punishment for theft? asked by RGraf

Misconceptions About Reasonable Punishment


People may say, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" in reference to the Old Testament, declaring that every wrong must be met with retribution and at least even restitution (even if that restitution is equal loss). Many go on to quote passages that state that 7 times the damage must be replaced, but who can use 6 extra eyes? Aside from the jibe, I understand the concept of punitive damages.

Regardless, this is not what the first scripture means, but refers to the law of the era that provided that no more than an eye could be required from one who made another lose an eye, etc. So, it was a punishment cap, the harshest punishment of the highest magnitude allowed. Need we extract the harshest punishment available in every case? Not likely; some thefts are much larger or more heinous than others.

Today, I no longer know what punishment is appropriate for theft, and here's why:


Will punishment deter the behavior and help the victim?


  • If the perpetrator is a child young enough not to understand boundaries and the fact that taking something that does not belong to you is wrong, then some action is needed. However, punishment without explanation is likely not effective. Recommended child development age-appropriate action can be followed.
  • If the perpetrator comes to America from a culture where the custom is share and share alike and there is no such thing as theft recognized and "shares" from someone here, should he/she be punished? The person will be confused and the behavior may, in fact, increase.
  • If the perpetrator is a Kleptomaniac, punishment will not likely be effectively. A course of treastment attached to some level of consequence may be the ticket.
  • If the perpetrator is a sociopath, punsihment will not result in behavior change, since the world and all it inhabitants exists for sociopaths to handle as they wish (in their opinion).
  • If a thief is homeless or a destitute single parent stealing food for children - or a person stranded in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina without food and water - is stealing punishable, morally?


  • Some individuals steal simply because it can be done. Business operations and customer service in some stores, especially some convenience stores, coffee shop chains, and fast food outlets ls lax and ludicrous. Utensils, cups and dishes, condiments and all sorts of things fly out the doors daily. In some, you can walk right out a door with a china cup in your hand and no one says a thing. Even in tighter ships, wholesale product is filched out the back doors. Bakery products are overproduced and staff take it all home. At department stores, some staff take home all the sample cosmetics and customers never know they existed. Worse, at one cafe chain, I watched as a cashier sold items from a $1.00 menu and in each instance that customers paid in exact change, she put the dollars in her pocket (I was on a business evaluation assignment and reported it). In another (upscale) chain during a rush hour, an assistant manager smugly passed free sandwiches and drink cups to friends when the manager looked the other way. In a drug store, cashiers brought in dozens of coupons from the Sunday newspaper each week, put them in the cash drawer, and took out the money -- The store did not even sell all the products on the coupons. One cashier did not understand why she was fired.
  • In K-12 and College, some students steal books and supplies from other students, destroy the materials, and laugh. One dental student, exhausted at the end of his final year of training, had spent days on a gold denture set, forgetting to lock his cabinet the last evening. It was stolen for the gold and he did not graduate - ever; he dropped out.
  • In a major company for which I worked, a supervisor reported that the company allowed a certain percentage of employee theft of office supplies yearly on financial statements. This was likely standard business practice, but he said the relatively small loss took the place of awarding pay raises among clerks and saved the company money. Very often, front-line employees that feel they are exploited will steal or damage company property. Who should be punished?
  • Psychological conditions can play havoc with one's sense of right and wrong. Some people will not accept an item or even a gift from you if you offer to share or give, but they will then steal it behind your back. They prefer to feel that they are an underdog somehow and therefore deserve to steal from others. Mind boggling.

Many thefts should be punished - pickpocketing, burglarizing cars and houses, embezzling, padding expense accounts, juggling books, Cyber Theft, ID Theft - a legion of offenses.

In some countries. a thief loses a hand in a public punishment by law enforcement officials.
In some countries. a thief loses a hand in a public punishment by law enforcement officials. | Source

Punishments For Theft

During a youth group several years ago, a social work supervisor from Saudi Arabia spent 6 weeks with us. He explained to us the laws in his nation regarding theft. It was a land in which houses did not need to be locked and crime rates for all crimes were low.

For theft at the time a person was captured in the act or later proved in the judicial system as guilty, the dominant hand was amputated at the wrist in a public event. This extreme punishment deterred crime.


This punishment is too extreme for our justice system. At the same time, society is changing through media exposure of children, youth, and us all to increasing numbers of violent events each hour. Computer system and online gaming that contains violence - and theft, as in Grand theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2 games, may be increasing the acceptability of theft and violence among people that will be nonplussed and probably enraged when later in life, they are arrested for such actions.

On the other hand, censorship is wrong, but a game-rating system's labels can be examined by parents before permitting children to have video games. This does nothing for youth over 17 and for adults that enjoy and even become addicted to violent or "thieving" games or for those of us who have stopped reacting to violence everywhere.

What is the proper punishment for theft?

In cases that are not the result of a mental disorder, then punishment must be that which deters the theft behavior and provides restitution to the person(s) who suffered losses. It should also leave the former thief with a fresh start and some guidance. I don't think community service does the trick; my experience being that the punished do it and laugh it off and are sometimes released early for any number of poor reasons.

The solution is more likely to lie in effective early training, discipline, and eventual self-displine for young children, followed-up into high school. Without initial training, punshment for theft, from middle school through adulthood, may be totally ineffective. My wish is that criminologist Simon Dinitz were alive in the 21st Century to stimulate effective solutions.

Alcatraz | Source


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      See the film "Identity Theft" for some very high tech methods of performing ID Theft - lots of electronic gadgets.

    • Mac Mission profile image

      Mac Mission 7 years ago from bangalore

      Really good ....

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      Patty as always I enjoyed your work - 'The solution is more likely to lie in effective early training, discipline, and eventual self-displine for young children' - in essence strong leadership, excellent.

    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 7 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      Interesting topic. I agree that punishment purely for the sake of punishment, will do nothing to change the mind of the criminal, or prevent more crime. People have to learn through experience and habit, and that sometimes takes years. Still, it is the only way things ever change for the better. Good work.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Well written and interesting article with all sorts of aspect. Thank you.