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Harm caused to victims of theft made central to sentencing decisions

Comprehensive guidance will help courts to sentence offenders for all types of theft in the interests of justice

7 October 2015

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New guidelines will help judges and magistrates deal with a variety of theft offences and ensure the harm caused to victims is central to the sentencing decision, says the Sentencing Council.

The guidelines are aimed at assisting courts to sentence a wide variety of offences, such as shop theft, pick-pocketing, handling stolen goods, stealing by employees or care workers, and abstraction of electricity. Last year, more than 91,000 people were sentenced for theft offences.

Previously, some common types of theft, for example of a motor vehicle or bicycle, have been sentenced using guidance for similar offences.

Under new rules, though, courts will consider the impact of thefts on victims beyond financial loss. In assessing harm to the victim, reference must be made to whether the offence impacted on a business, caused emotional distress, or resulted in a loss of confidence.

Although sentencing guidelines must be followed, where a judge or magistrate feels it is not in the interest of justice to do so, they can sentence outside of the guideline in the interests of justice.

This is dependent on a range of factors including the harm suffered by the victim, the financial values involved, how blameworthy the offender is, and the best way to prevent the offender from reoffending.

The guidelines are being introduced following a public consultation, where respondents strongly supported that the process of conducting the assessment of harm could be clearer.

Commenting on the announcement, Sentencing Council member and magistrate Jill Gramann said: 'Theft offences are some of the most common crimes that come before the courts, and these offences vary greatly.

'The new guidelines will help judges and magistrates deal with this great variety of offences while ensuring that the harm caused to the victim is central to the sentencing decision. Thefts are committed for financial gain, but can mean much more than financial loss to the victim and we want to ensure sentences take this into account.'

Richard Monkhouse, the national chairman of the Magistrates' Association, welcomed the new guidelines: 'This comprehensive and detailed guideline that will help our members sentence each offender as effectively as possible in our attempts to reduce offending and taking into account all relevant factors.'

For the first time, the theft of historic objects or the loss of the nation's heritage will make an offence more serious. Examples include damage to war memorials or theft of objects from an historic shipwreck.

The national policing and crime adviser for Historic England, Mark Harrison, commented: 'The value of England's heritage can't be judged in pounds and pence. The impact of theft on our historic sites and buildings has far-reaching consequences over and above the financial cost of what has been stolen. Heritage crime comes in many forms.

'When thieves steal metal from heritage assets, such as listed churches, artefacts from the ground, or historic stonework from an ancient castle, they are stealing from all of us and damaging something which is often irreplaceable.'

Harrison added that the guidelines will help the courts identify relevant factors to include in sentencing decisions including going equipped to steal, the act of theft, and the handling stolen goods.

Matthew Rogers is an editorial assistant at Solicitors Journal

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Procedures Courts & Judiciary