Bushfire arsonists dodge jail

Bushfire arsonists dodge jail

 13 October 2007

published by  www.news.com.au

Australia — Only five people have served full-time jail sentences for lighting bushfires in the past five years despite laws designed to get tough on arsonists.

While there have been 516 deliberately lit bushfires in that time, the few that were locked up served custodial sentences of less than three years.

That was despite the heinous crime carrying a so-called “minimum standard” non-parole period of five years – which is waived when offenders cut a deal with prosecutors and plead guilty.

The revelations come amid calls to increase the maximum penalty for lighting bushfires to 25 years, making the offence as serious as manslaughter.

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Figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research compiled for The Daily Telegraph showed 46 charges had been laid under bushfire legislation introduced in 2002.

From those charges, 25 offenders were either found guilty or had their offences proven. Most of the convicted arsonists escaped with periodic detention (3), suspended sentences (2), community service (2), bonds (1) or fines (1).

Only one was found not guilty after defending a charge in the courts but the majority of offenders, 17, had their cases dismissed due to either lack of evidence or mental health issues.

The figures make a mockery of legislation introduced with all the usual political fanfare in 2002 as a measure to come down hard on arsonists.

When the bushfires section of the Crimes Act, 203E, was passed, a person who intentionally caused a fire and was reckless to its spread was liable to a maximum of 14 years imprisonment.

A motion to go before the Local Government and Shires Association annual conference next week calls on the State Government to increase the maximum penalty for lighting bushfires to 25 years.

Under the proposed amendment, anyone guilty of lighting a fire that causes death would be liable to 25 years.

“We must send a message as to the severity of these acts,” the motion, put forward by Wollondilly Council, says.

“Any person intentionally lighting fires that cause death should be charged with murder or manslaughter.”

Former NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Phil Koperberg, now a NSW Government minister, criticised the soft sentencing of arsonists following the release of a convicted firebug.

Volunteer firefighter David Mills was sentenced to a minimum of 21 months periodic detention after lighting a fire that burned in Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park for six days in 2004 – costing $1.25 million and injuring a number of RFS volunteers.

“Given the seriousness of the crime . . . (the sentence) would appear to be lenient,” Mr Koperberg said at the time.

A court of appeal found in 2005 that the sentence was too lenient and, coupled with three separate charges of setting fire to property, sentenced him to a maximum 5½ years jail.

NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos said yesterday he would consider the proposal to increase the maximum sentence to 25 years.

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