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Sentencing Council publishes draft of new guideline for sentencing thieves

03 April 2014

Today, the Sentencing Council is announcing its proposals for a new sentencing guideline for theft offences.

The draft guideline covers a wide variety of types of theft such as pick-pocketing, shop theft, handling stolen goods, car theft, leaving a restaurant or petrol station without paying and stealing by employees or care workers. It also includes abstraction of electricity - that is, when meters are tampered with or electricity diverted from another property.

Theft is one of the most common offences that courts deal with and the Council aims to ensure that courts have effective and up-to-date guidance that helps them give consistent and proportionate sentences to the varied spectrum of offenders that come before them. It also addresses some gaps in the current guidance, covering some common theft offences such as theft of a car or bicycle.

The proposed guideline will also introduce a clearer focus on the impact of thefts on victims, and an understanding that the value of stolen items to victims is not just financial.

Existing guidance assesses the harm to the victim by looking at the offence type and financial loss caused. 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.

The Council also recognises the impact that shop thefts can have – it is far from a 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. It proposes that these factors should be central to assessing the harm to shop owners.

Risk of harm to people is also now stated among the factors making an offence potentially more serious. This would include offences where, for example, manhole covers, roof tiles or electrical cables are stolen.

The guideline also states clearly that if a theft causes damage to a heritage structure, this could increase the seriousness of an offence. This could include, for example, damage to a war memorial when thieves steal metal plaques from them.

Theft offences vary greatly. Shop theft, for example, covers a teenager stealing a chocolate bar from a supermarket to an organised gang stealing designer goods to order and the guideline provides a range of sentencing options that give judges and magistrates the flexibility to sentence appropriately according to the particular offender before them. This can vary from a prison sentence to a fine depending on the seriousness of the offence. Theft offences are frequently committed by those with underlying drug and alcohol problems and rehabilitating the offender to stop them reoffending can sometimes be best met by the imposition of a community order with a drug rehabilitation requirement. 

It also emphasises to sentencers the need to consider compensation or confiscation orders so that the court can order repayment of what was stolen or some financial restitution to the victim.

The proposed guideline is now subject to consultation and the Council is keen to hear from members of the public, magistrates, people who work in the criminal justice system and other interested parties about issues like:

  • The main factors that make any of the offences more serious or less serious;
  • Factors that should influence the sentence;
  • The structure and format of the guideline; and
  • The types and lengths of sentences that should be passed.

People can respond to the whole consultation or just focus on specific issues or offence types that are of particular interest to them. The consultation starts on 3 April and closes on 26 June.

Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Treacy, said:

“Theft comes in a great variety of forms, from someone pocketing a packet of razor blades in a shop to an organised gang stealing railway cables. As well as providing effective guidance to help sentencers deal with this wide spectrum of offenders, the guideline will ensure a clearer focus on the impact of thefts on victims beyond just the financial value of what is stolen from them.”

Helen Dickinson, Director General of the British Retail Consortium, said:

“We welcome the development of a new sentencing guideline for theft offences, with a clearer focus on retailers as victims.  Theft from stores pushed the direct cost of retail crime up to £511m last year, with the average cost of each theft rising by 62 per cent to £177.   Far from being victimless, we all pay for this increased stealing through higher prices and, increasingly, shop closures and damage to our town centres.  It is positive that the proposed new guideline recognises that the impact of theft is not merely financial but has more wide-reaching consequences for businesses and their staff.”

Peter Chapman, Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association Judicial Committee said:

"The Magistrates' Association welcomes this comprehensive draft guideline. 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."