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New sentencing guidelines for arson and criminal damage proposed

The Sentencing Council has published proposed new guidelines covering arson and criminal damage offences. The guidelines, for courts in England and Wales, will help ensure consistent and proportionate sentencing for these offences.

These offences can vary greatly in seriousness. Arson can range from a small fire set in a street litter bin to a carefully planned and sophisticated attack intended to endanger lives or destroy a building. Criminal damage also varies in seriousness and type and can include graffiti, damage to public amenities such as trains and railway stations or throwing stones at passing cars from a motorway bridge.

The guidelines cover:

  • Arson;
  • Criminal damage / arson with intent to endanger life or reckless as to whether life endangered;
  • Criminal damage where for the damage has a value more than £5000
  • Criminal damage where the damage has a value of less than £5000; and
  • Threats to destroy or damage property.

They also cover racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage offences.

The draft guidelines set out the approach to the assessment of harm caused by these offences and other factors that should be considered by courts. The guidelines acknowledge that harm can involve not only physical injury but long-term psychological effects, particularly in relation to arson, and the draft guidelines ensure that courts consider this in their assessment. The guidelines also provide fuller guidance than is currently available to assist courts in the sentencing of racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage cases.

The financial impact caused is also an important consideration in the assessment of harm, but the guidelines acknowledge that damage to property can mean more than just financial loss. Damage may be caused to items that have little financial value but are of great personal value, and may be irreplaceable, which can be very distressing for victims.

The guidelines also ensure that the economic or social impact of offending is included in sentencing considerations. Offences can be committed against public amenities and services and damage to a school, community centre or train station can have a real impact on local communities, while there can also be consequential economic harm caused to neighbouring houses or businesses. A further aggravating factor highlighted is ‘Significant impact on emergency services or resources’ which is included to reflect the additional seriousness of offences when a number of emergency vehicles are required to deal with an incident, meaning that fewer resources are then available to deal with any other incidents in the area.

The guidelines also highlight that the impact of arson or criminal damage to national heritage assets such as listed buildings or historic objects can also destroy unique parts of the country’s heritage and history, and that this should be taken into account in sentencing.

The introduction of the guidelines is due to existing sentencing guidance for these offences being very limited. There is some guidance in the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines (MCSG) for arson, criminal damage and racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage offences. However, there are no guidelines for the Crown Court and none for criminal damage/arson with intent to endanger life or reckless as to whether life endangered, or for threats to destroy or damage property.

Sentencing Council member Her Honour Judge Sarah Munro said: “The guidelines we are proposing will help ensure consistency in the sentencing of these extremely varied offences. They can range from very minor damage to property up to an intent to endanger lives and the guidelines set out an approach to sentencing that will help ensure appropriate sentences according to the seriousness of each offence.”

The consultation is seeking views on various areas of the draft guideline, including culpability and harm factors and the proposed sentence levels. It will run from 29 March until 26 June and can be accessed on the Council’s website. Following the consultation, a definitive guideline will be drawn up.

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