The Sentencing Council released recommended revised guidelines for arson and criminal damage charges today (March 27, 2017). The rules, which apply to courts in England and Wales, will help to ensure that these offences are punished consistently and proportionately.

Why are new guidelines being proposed?

The guidelines were created because current sentence guidance for these offences was extremely restricted. The Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines provide some guidelines for arson, criminal damage, and racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage offences. There are no rules for the Crown Court, and none for criminal damage/arson with purpose to risk life or reckless disregard for whether life is threatened, or threats to destroy or damage property.

The severity of these offences can vary substantially. Arson can range from a minor fire started in a trash can to a well-planned and sophisticated attack meant to damage life or destroy a structure. Graffiti, damage to public amenities such as trains and railway stations, and throwing stones at passing automobiles from a freeway bridge are all examples of criminal damage that vary in severity and variety.

What Offences Are Covered?

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.

Criminal damage offences that are ethnically or religiously motivated are also included.

Because the volume of this offence is so low (only 25 offenders were convicted for it in 2016), the Council chose to focus on guidelines for the higher volume offences.

Approach to sentencing

The proposed guidelines outline the strategy to assessing the harm caused by these offences as well as additional elements that courts should consider.

The draught rules recognise that harm can include not only physical pain but also long-term psychological impacts, notably in the case of arson, and they ensure that courts take this into account when making their decisions.

The guidelines also provide more information than is currently accessible to assist judges in sentencing situations involving racially or religiously aggravated criminal harm.

The financial cost of the damages is also crucial to examine, but the standards recognise that property damage can result in more than simply financial loss.

Damage can be done to goods with little monetary value but a lot of emotional significance, and they may be irreplaceable, which can be highly upsetting for sufferers.

The rules also ensure that the economic or social consequences of the crime are factored into sentencing decisions. Offenses against public amenities and services, such as damage to a school, community centre, or train station, can have a significant impact on local communities, as well as economic harm to neighbouring households or businesses. Another aggravating factor is ‘Significant impact on emergency services or resources,’ which is included to reflect the increased seriousness of offences when multiple emergency vehicles are required to respond to an incident, resulting in fewer resources available to respond to other incidents in the area.

The guidelines also emphasise that arson or criminal damage to national historical assets, such as listed buildings or historic artefacts, can harm distinctive aspects of the country’s heritage and history, and that this should be considered while sentencing.

Will sentences be tougher?

The Sentencing Council believes that the guidelines will have only a minor impact on sentence type and length, but admits that this is contingent on the rules being successfully applied.

When the Council issues new rules, it takes a number of steps to ensure that judges use them correctly. Sentencing ranges are determined by weighing sentencing data alongside Council members’ sentencing experience. Transcripts of sentencing statements for arson and criminal damage cases were also examined to ensure that the guidelines are based on current sentencing practise. During the consultation period, research with sentencers should allow concerns with implementation to be recognised and rectified before the ultimate guideline is published.

Explanatory material will be provided to read with the recommendations upon their release; consultees can also provide feedback on the expected effect of the guidelines, and whether this differs from the effects laid out in the consultation stage resource assessment. The Council also monitors the effects of its rules using data from the Ministry of Justice.

When will the guidelines take effect?

The revised restrictions are expected to go into force in late 2018. Judges, on the other hand, are likely to scrutinise the consultation guidelines before putting them into effect, despite the fact that this is bad practise. As a result, we will be especially vigilant for their exploitation before any formal guidelines are implemented.