Sentencing Snapshot 226: Sentencing Trends for Arson in the Higher Courts of Victoria 2013-14 to 2017-18

Date of Publication

Sentencing Snapshot no. 226 describes sentencing outcomes for the offence of arson in the County and Supreme Courts of Victoria from 2013-14 to 2017-18.

This is the most recent Snapshot for this offence.

You can also access statistics for this offence on SACStat.

Authored and published by the Sentencing Advisory Council
© State of Victoria, Sentencing Advisory Council, 2019


Snapshot 226: Arson

Introduction

This Sentencing Snapshot describes sentencing outcomes[1] for the offence of arson in the County and Supreme Courts of Victoria from 2013–14 to 2017–18.[2] Adjustments made by the Court of Appeal to sentence or conviction as at June 2018 have been incorporated into the data in this Snapshot.[3]

Detailed data on arson and other offences is available on Sentencing Advisory Council Statistics (SACStat).

A person who intentionally and without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another by setting it on fire is guilty of arson. A person is deemed to have destroyed or damaged the property intentionally if it was the person’s purpose to do so or if the person was aware that their conduct was more likely than not to result in the damage or destruction of the property.[4]

Arson is an indictable offence that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment[5] and/or a fine of 1,800 penalty units.[6] Indictable offences are more serious offences triable before a judge and jury in the County or Supreme Court. Arson can also be tried summarily by the Magistrates’ Court if the property involved meets certain criteria, the Magistrates’ Court considers it appropriate and the accused consents.

Arson was the principal offence[7] in 1.4% of cases sentenced in the higher courts between 2013–14 and 2017–18.

People Sentenced

From 2013–14 to 2017–18, 124 people were sentenced in the higher courts for a principal offence of arson.

Figure 1 shows the number of people sentenced for the principal offence of arson by financial year. There were 30 people sentenced for this offence in 2017–18, up by 6 people from the previous year. The number of people sentenced was highest in 2017–18 (30 people) and lowest in 2014–15 (20 people).

Figure 1: The number of people sentenced for arson, by financial year, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Financial Year Total
2013-14 22
2014-15 20
2015-16 28
2016-17 24
2017-18 30
Total 124

Sentence Types and Trends

Figure 2 shows the total number of people sentenced for arson and the number receiving an immediate custodial sentence. An immediate custodial sentence involves at least some element of immediate imprisonment or detention.[8] Over the five-year period, 75% of people were given an immediate custodial sentence.

Figure 2: The number of people sentenced for arson and the number receiving an immediate custodial sentence, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Financial Year Immediate custodial sentence People sentenced
2013-14 13 22
2014-15 12 20
2015-16 22 28
2016-17 20 24
2017-18 26 30
Total 93 124

Table 1 shows the number of people sentenced for arson by the types of sentences imposed. The availability of different sentence types has changed over time. Most notably, wholly and partially suspended sentences have now been abolished.[9] Changes to community correction orders have also influenced sentencing trends over the five years covered by this Snapshot.[10]

Over the five-year period, the majority of the people sentenced for arson received a principal sentence of imprisonment (74% or 92 of 124 people). Of these, 58 people received a sentence of imprisonment alone, 23 received imprisonment combined with a community correction order, 5 received aggregate imprisonment and the remaining 6 people received an aggregate sentence of imprisonment combined with a community correction order. The principal sentence is the sentence imposed for the charge that is the principal offence.[11]

The percentage of people receiving any form of imprisonment gradually increased, from 59% of sentencing outcomes for arson in 2013–14 to 87% in 2017–18. In contrast, community correction orders (without imprisonment) declined over the same period, from 32% in 2013–14 to 10% in 2017–18.

Table 1: The number and percentage of people sentenced for arson, by sentence type, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Sentence type 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 2017–18 Total
Imprisonment 11 (50%) 8 (40%) 10 (36%) 13 (54%) 16 (53%) 58 (47%)
Imprisonment and community correction order (combined) 1 (5%) 2 (10%) 8 (29%) 5 (21%) 7 (23%) 23 (19%)
Community correction order 7 (32%) 5 (25%) 5 (18%) 2 (8%) 3 (10%) 22 (18%)
Aggregate imprisonment and community correction order (combined) 0 (–) 1 (5%) 2 (7%) 1 (4%) 2 (7%) 6 (5%)
Aggregate imprisonment 1 (5%) 1 (5%) 2 (7%) 0 (–) 1 (3%) 5 (4%)
Non-custodial supervision order 1 (5%) 1 (5%) 1 (4%) 1 (4%) 1 (3%) 5 (4%)
Unconditional release 0 (–) 1 (5%) 0 (–) 1 (4%) 0 (–) 2 (2%)
Custodial supervision order 0 (–) 0 (–) 0 (–) 1 (4%) 0 (–) 1 (<1%)
Wholly suspended sentence 1 (5%) 0 (–) 0 (–) 0 (–) 0 (–) 1 (<1%)
Adjourned undertaking with conviction 0 (–) 1 (5%) 0 (–) 0 (–) 0 (–) 1 (<1%)
People sentenced 22 20 28 24 30 124

Principal and Total Effective Sentences

In this section, two methods are used to describe sentence lengths. One method relates to the principal sentence and describes sentences for the offence at a charge level. The other relates to the total effective sentence and describes sentences for the offence at a case level (the principal sentence is described above).

The total effective sentence in a case with a single charge is the principal sentence. The total effective sentence in a case with multiple charges is the sentence that results from the court ordering the individual sentences for each charge to be served concurrently (at the same time) or wholly or partially cumulatively (one after the other).

Where a case involves multiple charges, the total effective sentence imposed on a person is sometimes longer than the principal sentence. Principal sentences for arson must be considered in this broader context.

The following sections analyse the use of imprisonment for the offence of arson from 2013–14 to 2017–18.

Principal Sentence of Imprisonment

A total of 92 people received a principal sentence of imprisonment for arson. Of these, 81 people received a non-aggregate term of imprisonment and 11 people received an aggregate term. There were 29 people who received a community correction order in addition to their term of imprisonment.

Figure 3 shows the length of imprisonment for the people who received a non-aggregate term.[12] Imprisonment terms ranged from 11 days (combined with a community correction order) to 7 years and 9 months, while the median length of imprisonment was 2 years (meaning that half of the imprisonment terms were below 2 years and half were above).

The most common length of imprisonment was 2 to less than 3 years (20 people).

Figure 3: The number of people sentenced to imprisonment for arson, by length of imprisonment term, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Imprisonment length Number of people
Less than 1 year 16
1 to less than 2 years 16
2 to less than 3 years 20
3 to less than 4 years 17
4 to less than 5 years 6
5 to less than 6 years 5
6 to less than 7 years 0
7 to less than 8 years 1
People sentenced 81

As shown in Figure 4, the average (mean) length of imprisonment imposed on people sentenced for arson ranged from 1 year and 8 months in 2015–16 to 2 years and 7 months in 2013–14. The average length of imprisonment for the principal offence of arson remained relatively consistent over the five-year period, aside from 2014–15 and 2015–16. However, the number of people who received a non-aggregate sentence of imprisonment for arson almost doubled over the five years, increasing from 12 people in 2013–14 to 23 people in 2017–18.

Figure 4: The average (mean) length of imprisonment imposed on people sentenced for arson, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Financial year Number of people Average length of imprisonment term
2013-14 12 2y, 7m
2014-15 10 2y, 2m
2015-16 18 1y, 8m
2016-17 18 2y, 6m
2017-18 23 2y, 6m

Other Offences Finalised at the Same Hearing

Sometimes people prosecuted for arson face multiple charges, which are finalised at the same hearing. This section looks at the range of offences that offenders were sentenced for alongside the principal offence of arson. The section includes data on all people sentenced for a principal offence of arson, not just those who received imprisonment.

Figure 5 shows the number of people sentenced for the principal offence of arson by the total number of sentenced offences per person. The number of sentenced offences per person ranged from 1 to 39, while the median was 3 offences. There were 37 people (30%) sentenced for the single offence of arson. The average number of offences per person was 4.52.

Figure 5: The number of people sentenced for the principal offence of arson, by the number of sentenced offences per person, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Number of offences Number of people
1 37
2 24
3 21
4 9
5-9 20
10-19 8
20+ 5
Total 124

Table 2 shows the 10 most common offences, by number and percentage, for people sentenced for arson. The last column sets out the average number of offences sentenced per person. For example, 21 of the total 124 people (16.9%) also received sentences for theft. On average, they were sentenced for 2.19 counts of theft.

Table 2: The number and percentage of people sentenced for the principal offence of arson, by the most common offences that were sentenced and the average number of those offences that were sentenced, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Offence Number of cases Percentage of cases Average number of proven offences per case
1. Arson 124 100% 1.73
2. Theft 21 16.9% 2.19
3. Burglary 21 16.9% 1.67
4. Intentionally destroy or damage property (criminal damage) 20 16.1% 1.65
5. Commit an indictable offence while on bail 9 7.3% 1.11
6. Handling stolen goods 8 6.5% 1.75
7. Drive while disqualified or suspended 7 5.6% 1.43
8. Making a threat to kill 6 4.8% 1.33
9. Common law assault 6 4.8% 1.17
10. Reckless conduct endangering persons 5 4.0% 1.40
People sentenced 124 100% 4.52

Total Effective Imprisonment Terms

Figure 6 shows the number of people sentenced to imprisonment for arson by length of total effective imprisonment term. The total effective imprisonment terms ranged from 11 days (combined with a community correction order) to 14 years and 6 months, while the median total effective imprisonment term was 3 years (meaning that half of the total effective imprisonment terms were below 3 years and half were above).

The most common total effective imprisonment term was 3 to less than 4 years (24 people).

Figure 6: The number of people sentenced to imprisonment for arson, by length of total effective imprisonment term, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Total effective imprisonment length Number of people
Less than 1 year 18
1 to less than 2 years 21
2 to less than 3 years 4
3 to less than 4 years 24
4 to less than 5 years 13
5 to less than 6 years 5
6 to less than 7 years 1
7 to less than 8 years 1
8 to less than 9 years 1
9 to less than 10 years 1
10 to less than 11 years 0
11 to less than 12 years 1
12 to less than 13 years 0
13 to less than 14 years 0
14 to less than 15 years 2
People sentenced 92

Non-Parole Period

If a person is sentenced to a term of immediate imprisonment of less than 1 year, the court cannot impose a non-parole period. For terms between 1 year and less than 2 years, the court has the discretion to fix a non-parole period. For terms of imprisonment of 2 years or more, the court must impose a non-parole period in most circumstances. If the court fixes a non-parole period, the person must serve that period before becoming eligible for parole. If the court does not set a non-parole period, the person must serve the entirety of their imprisonment term in custody.

Of the 92 people who were sentenced to imprisonment for arson, 74 were eligible to have a non-parole period fixed.[13] Of these people, 55 were given a non-parole period (74%).[14] Figure 7 shows the number of people sentenced to imprisonment for arson by length of non-parole period. Non-parole periods ranged from 4 months to 12 years and 3 months, while the median non-parole period was 2 years and 2 months (meaning that half of the non-parole periods were below 2 years and 2 months and half were above).

The most common non-parole period imposed was 2 to less than 3 years (31 people); however, the most common outcome was that no non-parole period was imposed (36 people).

Figure 7: The number of people sentenced to imprisonment for arson, by length of non-parole period, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Non-parole period Number of people
Less than 1 year 4
1 to less than 2 years 8
2 to less than 3 years 31
3 to less than 4 years 4
4 to less than 5 years 2
5 to less than 6 years 1
6 to less than 7 years 2
7 to less than 8 years 0
8 to less than 9 years 1
9 to less than 10 years 1
10 to less than 11 years 0
11 to less than 12 years 0
12 to less than 13 years 1
No non-parole period 36
Total people 91

Total Effective Sentences of Imprisonment and Non-Parole Periods

Figure 8 compares the average length of total effective sentences of imprisonment with the average length of non-parole periods.[15]

From 2013–14 to 2017–18, the average length of total effective sentences for all people ranged from 2 years and 2 months in 2015–16 to 4 years in 2016–17. Over the same period, the average length of non-parole periods ranged from 2 years and 1 month in 2015–16 to 4 years and 8 months in 2016–17.

Figure 8: The average total effective sentence and the average non-parole period imposed on people sentenced to imprisonment for arson, 2013–14 to 2017–18

Financial year Average total effective length Average non-parole period
2013-14 3y, 8m 2y, 4m
2014-15 2y, 6m 2y, 2m
2015-16 2y, 2m 2y, 1m
2016-17 4y, 0m 4y, 8m
2017-18 2y, 10m 2y, 5m

Further data on total effective sentences of imprisonment and corresponding non-parole periods for arson is available on SACStat. Data on the length of non-imprisonment sentence types, such as community correction orders and fines, for arson is also available on SACStat.

Summary

From 2013–14 to 2017–18, 124 people were sentenced for arson in the higher courts. Of these people, 92 (74%) were given a principal sentence of imprisonment.

People with a principal offence of arson were sometimes sentenced for other offences. The number and range of those offences help explain why imprisonment sentence lengths were longer for the total effective sentence than for the principal sentence. The median total effective imprisonment length was 3 years, while the median principal imprisonment length was 2 years.

Total effective imprisonment lengths ranged from 11 days (combined with a community correction order) to 14 years and 6 months, and non-parole periods (where imposed) ranged from 4 months to 12 years and 3 months.

Endnotes

1. This series of reports includes custodial and non-custodial supervision orders imposed under Part 5 of the Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to Be Tried) Act 1997 (Vic) as sentencing orders and in the count of people sentenced. These orders are not sentencing orders as they are imposed in cases in which the accused is found to be unfit to stand trial or not guilty because of mental impairment. However, they are included in this report as they are an important form of disposition of criminal charges.

This Sentencing Snapshot is an update of Sentencing Snapshot no. 201, which describes sentencing trends for arson between 2011–12 and 2015–16.

2. Data on first-instance sentencing outcomes in this Snapshot was obtained from the Strategic Analysis and Review Team at Court Services Victoria. Data on appeal outcomes was collected by the Sentencing Advisory Council from the Australasian Legal Information Institute, and was also provided by the Victorian Court of Appeal. The Sentencing Advisory Council regularly undertakes extensive quality control measures for current and historical data. While every effort is made to ensure that the data analysed in this report is accurate, the data is subject to revision.

3. In October 2017, the High Court delivered its judgment in Director of Public Prosecutions v Dalgliesh (A Pseudonym) [2017] HCA 41, in which it made two important findings about sentencing in Victoria. First, Victorian courts had been giving too much weight to current sentencing practices, which is just one of the factors courts are required to take into account when imposing a sentence. Second, where current sentencing practices are shown to be in error (for example, when they fail to adequately reflect community expectations) courts should change their practices immediately, not incrementally.

Although the High Court’s decision only occurred during the last financial year of this Snapshot, it may result in considerable changes to sentencing patterns for future editions of the Snapshots.

4. This Snapshot excludes the offence of arson causing death, which is defined in section 197A of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). Arson causing death is a Category 2 offence under the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) that carries a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment.

5. Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) s 197(6).

6. The value of a penalty unit changes each year and can be found in the Victorian Government Gazette and on the Victorian Legislation and Parliamentary Documents website.

7. If a person is sentenced for a case with a single charge, the offence for that charge is the principal offence. If a person is sentenced for more than one charge in a single case, the principal offence is the offence for the charge that attracted the most serious sentence according to the sentencing hierarchy.

8. An immediate custodial sentence includes imprisonment, imprisonment combined with a community correction order, aggregate imprisonment combined with a community correction order, aggregate imprisonment and a custodial supervision order.

9. Suspended sentences have been abolished in the higher courts for all offences committed on or after 1 September 2013 and in the Magistrates’ Court for all offences committed on or after 1 September 2014.

10. For example, initially the maximum term of imprisonment that could be combined with a community correction order was set at 3 months, but it was increased to 2 years in September 2014 and reduced to 1 year in March 2017.

11. Refer to Endnote 7.

12. Data presented in this section does not include imprisonment lengths for people who received an aggregate sentence of imprisonment. Sentence lengths for aggregate sentences of imprisonment apply to the whole case, while Figures 3 and 4 only deal with sentences of imprisonment for the principal offence of arson.

13. A total of 18 people were not eligible to have a non-parole period fixed because they were given a total effective sentence length of less than 1 year.

14. One person was not given a non-parole period relating to that case alone, but a non-parole period that also related to other cases. It is not possible to determine the length of the non-parole period that relates to this case. The non-parole period for this person was excluded from the analysis. A non-parole period was not set for 18 people who were eligible for a non-parole period.

15. In 2016–17, the average total effective imprisonment length was lower than the average non-parole period. This may occur when a large number of the cases receive short sentences of imprisonment without a non-parole period. In the same period, there were three cases with relatively lengthy imprisonment terms and non-parole periods. These three outliers skewed the mean total effective sentence length and non-parole period upwards, relative to other years.

Categories