Sunday - 21 December 2014

Tougher sentences for thefts that hit heritage

24 April 2014Written by Roland Arkell

Thieves who target cultural property or items of great sentimental value could be hit with tougher sentences under official new proposals.

Draft guidelines introduced by the Sentencing Council on April 3 say that for the first time judges and magistrates should take into account whether a theft caused "damage to heritage structures" when calculating the starting point for a sentence. The examples given included the theft of a bronze plaque from a war memorial or the damage caused by stripping lead from a church roof.

The draft guidelines said: "The impact of metal thefts will be reflected at step one. Where, for example, disruption is caused to infrastructure [such as railways or the telephone network] or there is damage to heritage structure' as a result of metal theft, the court should consider whether to increase the sentence either within the sentencing range or sentence outside the range."

In reference to the example of the theft of 150 brass plaques from a crematorium, the Sentencing Council set out how the sentence could increase from a few months in prison to between one and four years.

The War Memorials Trust has estimated that one monument a week is targeted by metal thieves who remove copper or bronze plaques or statuary to be melted down.

Addressing the consequences of metal theft is a key part of the new proposals but the guideline covers a broad spectrum of theft types, from handling stolen goods to leaving a restaurant or petrol station without paying, and considers the factors that make one offence more serious than another.

Emotional Cost

Central to the spirit of the new proposals is the understanding that the value of stolen items to victims is not just financial - something absent from the current more 'matter-of-fact' system.

"Existing guidance assesses the harm to the victim by looking at the offence type and financial loss caused," says the consultation document. "The new guideline goes further and considers the broader impact of the theft on the victim, including a number of factors not covered in the existing guidelines, such as emotional distress, fear and loss of confidence caused by the crime."

If the new measures are finalised, judges and magistrates will also be able to hand out more severe punishments when sentencing thieves who have stolen items of "sentimental or personal value".

Similar measures are already in force for burglary but the new guidelines will introduce them for other types of theft, such as handbag snatches or stealing from a car.

The Council also recognises the impact that shop or stall thefts can have - a far from victimless crime. In the shop theft draft guideline, it emphasises not only loss of business but also takes into account that the size or type of business can make the shop owner particularly hard hit by thieves.

Peter Chapman, chairman of the Magistrates' Association Judicial Committee, welcomed the new draft guidelines. "Magistrates sentence a large number and a large variety of theft cases. Sometimes they have to consider victims who have suffered direct financial loss, and possibly also fear and loss of confidence to go about their daily lives.

"Shop theft is a big problem for both large and small retail businesses. Other offences expose the public to danger when vital equipment is stolen. This updated and more detailed guideline will help magistrates identify all the relevant factors to include in their sentencing decisions."

Members of the public can respond to the whole consultation - or just focus on specific issues or offence types that are of particular interest to them - via info@sentencingcouncil.gsi.gov.uk.

The 12-week consultation period closes on 26 June.

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