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Public Law & Legal Theory


In the past decade, major retailers nationwide have begun to employ a private, for-profit system to settle criminal disputes, extracting payment from shoplifting suspects in exchange for a promise not to call the police. This Article examines what retailers’ decisions reveal about our public system of criminal justice and the concerns of the agents who run it, the victims who rely on it, and the suspects whose lives it alters. The private policing of commercial spaces is well known, as is private incarceration of convicted offenders. This Article is the first, however, to document how industry has penetrated new parts of the criminal process, administering sanctions to resolve thousands of shoplifting allegations each year.

Proponents of private justice claim that everyone wins. Critics say it’s blackmail. The Article takes a tentative middle ground: While “retail justice” is not the American ideal, it may nonetheless be preferable to public criminal justice, at least if certain conditions are met. Rather than cancel the private justice experiment, therefore, as several states are poised to do, the government should aim to foster optimal conditions for its success.

Extending the central analysis, the Article then shows how the study of private justice leads to fresh perspectives on important criminal justice issues. It suggests, for example, that the costs to crime victims of assisting the prosecution may be a feature of the system, not a bug, if they encourage victims to invest in efficient crime-deterring precautions. It also complicates legal academic models of police and prosecutorial behavior built on maximizing arrests and convictions. The Article concludes by identifying conditions that conduce to private criminal justice and speculating about the next frontiers.



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