New sentencing guidelines for criminal damage and arson
The Sentencing Council has published a new set of guidelines. They cover arson and criminal damage of all kinds, as well as threats to destroy property. There were existing guidelines, but they were thought to be very limited and only covered the Magistrates Court. There were no guidelines for the Crown Court, which deals with the more serious offences.
What are sentencing guidelines for?
Sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure that the court passes an appropriate sentence and does so consistently across all of these extremely varied cases.
A judge must follow sentencing guidelines unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.
The new guidelines will replace those that existed in the Magistrates Court and extend to the Crown Court. They cover all offenders aged over eighteen.
What factors will the Court consider?
The Sentencing Council has said that the guidelines will make sure courts consider:
- The full impact of arson or criminal damage such as vandalism on national heritage assets. This also includes listed buildings, historic objects or unique parts of national heritage and history.
- The economic or social impact of damaging public amenities and services. For example, a fire at a school or community centre, or criminal damage at a train station. This can adversely affect local communities or cause economic hardship to neighbouring houses or businesses.
- The effect on communities when an area’s emergency services or resources are diverted to deal with criminal activity.
The guidelines provide starting points, and category ranges for offences of arson, arson and criminal damage (intending that, or being reckless as to whether life is endangered), criminal damage over £5,000, criminal damage under £5,000, racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage of both values, and threats to destroy or damage property.
The guidelines require the sentencing judge or magistrates to determine the ‘culpability’. This takes into account things like planning, intended amount of damage, and motive, and ‘harm’. It also takes into account physical or psychological harm caused, the value of the damage, and any subsequent loss caused.
Racially and religiously aggravated offences are given an ‘uplift’ for the level of aggravation. This makes for more severe punishment and possibly lifts an offence above the custody threshold.
To take an example, criminal damage under £5,000 with elements of significant planning and causing a high amount of damage and distress would lead to a starting point of a high-level community order with a range from a medium-level community order to three months custody. If that were a racially aggravated offence, where the racial motive was a significant part of the offence, that would likely increase the starting point to a custodial sentence.
Comments by the Magistrates Association
Commenting on the new guidelines, John Bache JP, National Chair of the Magistrates Association, said:
‘We are very pleased that the new guidelines for Arson and Criminal Damage have been published, and will be available for magistrates from 1st October. These new guidelines will be very helpful to magistrates dealing with these important cases and clearly set out the relevant factors in determining harm, beyond a focus on physical damage. It is, however, right that if an offender has mental health conditions or learning disabilities then courts must obtain assessments to fully understand whether this impacts on their culpability, and this guideline will help to ensure that this happens.’
How we can assist
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Please note that the information contained in this article was correct at the time of writing. There may have been updates to the law since the article was written, which may affect the information and advice given therein.