Firestarters Are Rarely Punished. Here's What Could Happen Instead.
Bush fire arson is a notoriously easy offence to commit and a notoriously difficult one to detect let alone prosecute. Experts say it's time police and government rapidly change their approach when it comes to stopping it.
The only thing more shocking than seeing the ferocity of a bush fire is, arguably, learning that someone deliberately started it. The shock factor continues when it is revealed that a child struck the match.
A 2015 study of more than 110,000 fires found that 40 percent were deliberately lit, another 47 percent accidental, with the remaining 13 percent not known.
Half of those who light fires are children and the most dangerous cohort are aged between 30 and 60 (mostly men).
“There’s only a very small percentage who are repeat offenders, usually these tend towards the older age group 30,40, 50, these are the ones lighting fires on hots days close to community and you can see there is a malicious intent there,” ecological criminologist and sustainability scientist at Monash University Paul Read said.
Despite having a fairly clear profile of offenders and what drives different types of firebugs, authorities still struggle to find and punish the culprits.
“Arson is the most costly crime in Australia and yet it’s the least prosecuted,” Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute's Janet Stanley said.
And this is against a backdrop of arson penalties getting harsher and harsher.
“The penalties range from 14 to 25 years. The problem is that a very small percentage are actually apprehended, with some figures saying only one per cent convicted, which is extraordinary,” Read said.
New South Wales
In 2014, the state introduced new and increased fines in a bid to deter would-be arsonists.
Lighting a fire when a total fire ban is in place warrants up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a $5500 fine, while damaging property with the intention of endangering life is punishable by up to 25 years behind bars.
But they don't appear to be translating once convictions are analysed.
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data from April 2013 to March 2018 shows that there have been four convictions for bushfires in District Courts. The average sentence is a little less than four years in jail.
There were for 42 convictions in local courts, with a little over a half resulting in jail time of less than two years.
More than 100 children and teens a year are suspected of lighting fires in NSW but just a fraction of them ever face a courtroom.
Just last week a group of teenagers, including three boys aged 15 and 16, were arrested for allegedly setting bushland alight near Campbelltown.
Police have since said the teens are eligible to be dealt with under the Young Offender’s Act - which means they could be let off with a warning and ordered to attend an education program.
Dean says when it comes to children many “don’t necessarily have malicious intent".
Some are simply playing with fire, while others who are fragile due to mental illness or a history of sexual abuse are crying out for help.
“These children are often just released back into the community, like a community sentence rather than the help they are desperately seeking,” Stanley said.
A person who willfully and unlawfully sets fire to anything commits a crime with a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
In 2017 and 2018, 136 children were charged with endangering property in Queensland by lighting fires, but Queensland police have revealed a little over 10 percent were actually convicted.
And in the latest spate of blazes to engulf parts of the state, 10 children allegedly started some of the of the recent Queensland bushfires.
“This is the group that if we get to them before they strike the first match we can actually prevent bushfires. But the only way to do that is to make sure we don’t demonise fire starters wholesale,” Read said.
If you are found guilty of arson, deliberately lighting a fire to cause damage to property, you can be sent to jail for up to 25 years. The maximum penalty for intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire is 15 years imprisonment.
In the 2009 Victoria fires 173 people died and at least 10 of those deaths, in the town of Churchill, were directly linked to Brendan Sokaluk.
While the 39 year old man who is autistic and suffers from a mild intellectual disability strenuously denies lighting the fire deliberately, he was given a 17-year sentence for the Churchill fire.
But the majority of prosecutions for arson in Victoria, from January 2016 to June 2018, where for urban arson attacks on cars, houses and workplaces.
Of the 53 convictions, only 16 percent were bushfire related where penalties ranged from six months in prison to five years behind bars.
I think there is a degree of complacency since Black Saturday from the government and I think a lot more can be done.
“They need to provide a lot more funding to prevent this," Read said.
Arson offences are among the most serious criminal offences that Western Australian courts deal with. Criminal damage by fire attracts a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Over 300 arson related charges are laid by WA Police each year.
In a bid to increase charges and convictions police now offer rewards of up to $50,000 for reporting information that leads to the identification and conviction of arsonists.
Experts Calling For A New Approach
“The whole system in my view needs to be reviewed and reflected upon,” Stanley said.
She says harsher punishments aren't the answer.
“Instead of increasing the penalties all the time, it would be better to actually use that money of incarceration to actually help these people to go on a different pathway in life, especially if they are young people,” Stanley said.
Read agrees, particularly in the case of young offenders.
"We need to be able to refer them into education or alternatively mental health services,” he said.
Stanley says it needs to be better resourced, given how much bushfire arson costs the country.
Shorter-term approaches include providing support and treatment to at-risk youth, and situational crime prevention such as good lighting and cameras in places vulnerable to fire lighting.
“There is one program in Victoria where on really hot days, kids at risk are gathered and all taken to the beach,” she said.
Addressing long-term problems such as youth disadvantage and unemployment, especially in rural-urban fringe areas where most human-lit fires occur, will also help.
Read says those with malicious intent -- who are dangerous and are "developing towards full-blown psychopathy" -- should be dealt with via the courts.
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