The 19-year-old woman had been shopping for a prom dress at Nordstrom, she told the others in the small class in Arlington. She never meant to shoplift.

She simply forgot that two gowns were draped over her arm as she headed for the door. And the earrings? She had been distracted by a cell phone call and forgot that she accidentally put them in her purse.

"It's not like I'm a thief," she told the skeptical group. "I'm not."

Whatever the explanations, Suzanne Walter, the director of the Shoplifting Theft Offender Program, has heard them all.

"They'll say, 'It was impulsive.' 'I was greedy.' 'I just didn't want to pay for it.' . . . It goes on and on," Walter said.

Those arrested for the first time on petty larceny charges in many Northern Virginia jurisdictions can take Walter's four-hour shoplifting prevention class and avoid jail time and a conviction.

It's one of many efforts nationwide to stem the growing problem of theft in stores, a crime that retailers say costs them more than $10 billion annually and millions more in security measures.

As more retailers adopt zero-tolerance policies, even prosecuting for a stolen candy bar, many people are landing in similar classes across the Washington region.

The programs have been around for decades nationally, and Walter said she has instructed thousands of people in the 14 years she has been holding classes across the state.

Their stories -- which they must share aloud -- are as diverse as their economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. During a class last month in Alexandria, Yolanda Johnson, the only person willing to identify herself, said she stole two pairs of earrings from a Target store in Alexandria.

"I took the earrings and put them in my pocket," said the 37-year-old District woman. "I had money in my pocket, but I just did it. I don't know why."

Then the others spoke: One man had stolen a $5 salad; a woman had walked out of a store with a skirt four years ago (she thought she had gotten away with it until a bench warrant caught up with her); a mother said she had forgotten to remove a children's book from a baby stroller.

Walter gives participants a crash course in shoplifting laws and a lesson in the psychology of shoplifting.

"Just because you get caught doesn't mean you'll stop," Walter told them. "You have to learn new behaviors."

During the class, participants scribbled in a 13-page workbook, answering questions about what made them do it.

Was it an impulsive act? Were they angry? Was it a cry for help and they wanted to get caught?

"Why Good People do Bad Things!" reads one page of the workbook, which lists reasons people steal: impulsiveness, thrills, anger, depression, boredom and addictive personalities. Some people get an emotional high from stealing.

"There are a lot of psychological factors," Walter said.

Compulsive shoplifters can avoid putting themselves at risk by shopping online, shopping only when they have money or shopping with a friend who knows about their problem.

Walter said she has no way of knowing how many of her students have been arrested again -- repeat offenders no longer qualify for the class. All of those in her recent classes said they had never shoplifted before except for stealing candy when they were children.

"You're the only ones who know if you're telling the truth," Walter told them.

While some told their stories with ease, others appeared uncomfortable explaining what they had done -- and vowed that it will never happen again.

The 37-year-old Alexandria man who stole the $5 salad said that in hindsight it definitely was not worth it.

"It was an expensive salad," he said, noting that it cost him $200 in court fees and the $60 class fee.

Some participants questioned why stores are prosecuting people for misdemeanors.

"Most retailers are taking more of a zero-tolerance policy now because the margin is so narrow in making a profit that you have to protect your assets," said Robert Wade, vice president of loss prevention for Hecht's and Strawbridge's stores.

Shoplifting experts said that though classes such as Walter's might deter the one-time impulsive shoplifter, it won't stop compulsive shoplifters.

One-third of shoplifters are responsible for 85 percent of the monetary losses from theft, said Peter Berlin, executive director of Shoplifters Alternative, a division of Shoplifters Anonymous Inc.

"Shoplifting is a symptom of their ability or inability to cope with what's going on in their lives," said Berlin, who refers to the act as the silent crime. "Many of these people are law-abiding citizens except in this particular area."

And there is a stigma that might make people extremely reluctant to seek help, said Terrence Shulman, a recovering shoplifter who founded the Michigan-based Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous Inc. 12 years ago.

"There's nothing in the Bible that says thou shalt not drink too much or use crack cocaine," he said. "But shoplifting is unique. There is a commandment that says thou shalt not steal. It's illegal and immoral."