California prosecutor sues shoplifter pretrial diversion program

By Curtis Skinner

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The San Francisco City Attorney's Office on Monday sued a company it said worked with security guards and retail stores to extort shoplifting suspects into paying hundreds of dollars for a supposed educational program to avoid jail time.

The civil lawsuit filed against Utah-based Corrective Education Company, or CEC, said the company offers a pretrial diversion program to rehabilitate misdemeanor offenders instead of having them arrested and receive a criminal record.
The lawsuit said CEC, founded by two Harvard Business School graduates in 2010, does not comply with laws governing such programs and operates without the involvement or knowledge of the criminal justice system.
CEC's program also violates state extortion laws, falsely imprisons accused shoplifters, and runs afoul of other regulations, according to the suit.
The attorney's office said security guards at participating retailers have taken shoplifting suspects - as many as 20,000 people - to isolated areas where they induced them to sign contracts admitting guilt and had them agree to pay $500 for a six-hour behavior modification program.
Suspects were given misleading statements about their choices during their detention and threatened with criminal prosecution if they refused to comply, according to the complaint.
The suit said that some 90 percent of suspects have agreed to make the payments. If suspects failed to complete the program and make the payments within a 90-day time frame, CEC made "threatening phone calls and sends threatening letters" promising to involve law enforcement, the suit said.
The lawsuit also contends that CEC has payed retailers and security companies for each enrolled "student" to encourage participation.
"Everyone should be concerned about the privatization of our justice system, and that is especially true in this case with CEC using the threat of criminal prosecution to extort those accused," said Yvonne Mere, a chief attorney with the office.
A representative for CEC when reached by phone said the company had no comment.
Company CEO Brian Ashton said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the case was "without merit" and "factually incorrect."
"The program typically costs offenders significantly less than going through the criminal justice system. It also gives first-time offenders the opportunity to avoid having the stigma of being arrested follow them for the rest of their lives," the statement said.
The suit is seeking an immediate halt to CEC's program and civil penalties of $2,500 per violation.

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