The ad, created by the firm We Defend You, tells potential clients “we defend anyone arrested for shoplifting food from the grocery stores for FREE!”
A pair of asterisks after the last word lead to fine print warning: “first offence of value less than $5000.”
The ad continues: “you do not deserve a criminal record because you wanted to feed your family.”
“I’m not pro-crime, I’m not saying stealing’s OK,” says Frank Alfano with We Defend You, whose career has spanned more than three decades.
“I’m just saying, look, people sometimes make mistakes, they’ve had a horrible day or they’ve done something they wouldn’t have otherwise done. And those are the types of people, if you’re stealing a carton of eggs for your family, you can’t afford to pay me so I do it for free for that very reason.”
Alfano told Global News the online ad, coupled with the current high cost of a grocery bill, seems to have magnified the attention he is getting, but he said he has always defended such cases pro bono.
“Unless the person has a long record or something, generally these cases end up in what’s called a diversion program,” he explained.
“These programs are where you make a donation to charity, or a letter of apology, maybe some community service hours, some sort of acknowledgement that they’re wrong, and then the charge is diverted from the court by being withdrawn.”
There is no denying a growing desperation to put food on the table.
Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank says it has seen a sharp decline in donations in recent years, along with a steep increase in users — many of whom, ideally, should not need their services.
“A third of individuals who make use of food banks have full-time employment, yet they can’t make ends meet,” CEO Neil Hetherington told Global News.
“We have a whole host of things that are systemically broken.”
Hetherington says Daily Bread, like other food banks across Canada, is making efforts to advocate for measures like a universal basic income and more affordable housing.
In the meantime, Sylvain Charlebois, director of Dalhousie University’s Agrifood Analytics Lab, says food theft is up, and that it does have an impact on the bottom lines of retailers big and small. He told Global News, though, that big grocers are not necessarily as concerned about smaller cases of shoplifting.
“The bigger issue, of course, is organized crime,” he said.
“They can steal thousands and thousands of dollars to resell in the black market, and often restaurant operators will buy these products. There’s actually a market for these products.”
Alfano says he has not personally seen an uptick in the smaller cases that he works on. If it is happening more often he wonders if, perhaps, charges just are not being laid as often.
“I just think loss prevention officers are recognizing the circumstances and they’re using their discretion in a way that reflects that.”