HONOLULU (KHON2) — For years, retailers have grown frustrated with the frequency of thefts in stores because thieves are not being severely punished. Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm is sending a warning to criminals — stiffer penalties will be applied to habitual thieves if they are convicted.

Retailers have said that the COVID pandemic has increased the frequency of thefts in part because many of the stores were closed for a while, and with everyone wearing masks, it’s harder to identify the thieves. Even if they are arrested, they would normally be released from jail within a few days.

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“We saw a lot of the shoplifters kind of laughing at us, they know they’re not gonna get prosecuted, they kept doing it,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

“Typically would get released, credit for time served, and go back out to keep doing exactly the same thing. So that is what would typically happen,” said Alm.

Alm explained that prosecutors have been working with retailers and the Honolulu Police Department to identify suspects who basically make a career of stealing from stores. He said those who are repeatedly caught with this type of crime will be charged with a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

“We think by focusing on, not a huge number but a very active population, we can have an impact on this,” said Alm. “Some of these become robberies when the stores try to stop the person, others are involved with threats. It’s very uncomfortable, it’s scary for the merchants.”

Alm points to 36-year-old Lawrence Smalls who he noted has 161 convictions. Smalls has been charged with two counts of habitual property crime and because it’s habitual, bail can be set higher at $20,000, which keeps him in custody.

The recent cases of flash mob thefts on the mainland put a scare on many local retailers. Alm said that the stiffer penalty should help prevent those from happening here.

“So, we’re going to try to stop that kind of stuff before it happens. Because like you said, there have been horrendous situations on the mainland, like in San Francisco recently,” Alm added.

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“Now that we’re seeing that there are penalties for this, we’re hoping that it’s gonna send a message out to the other shoplifters and give them the warning that they will be prosecuted,” said Yamaki.