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Arson is a criminal conduct where an individual willfully and maliciously burns or chars property. It is vital to note that arson, as a crime, has many categories through which criminal law treats it. First, arson may involve the intent of fraud where the perpetrator intends to make an insurance claim against fire. Secondly, arson may involve a person setting a forest, land or other property on fire. A majority of crimes of arson involve the destruction of buildings and other types of residential property. Most legal jurisdictions classify arson as a felony because it predisposes people to the danger of injury and death. Other than being perceived as crime based on the intent of the perpetrator, arson has another significant duality in terms of societal perception. First, it continues be viewed in the society as an act of insanity. Secondly, the society tends to treat it as an act of rebellion in some circumstances. Arson can be an act of insanity or an act of change, depending on the circumstances that underpin a given legal definition and as demonstrated through the assertions in strain theories.
Strain theories are the appropriate theoretical perspective to understand the incidence of arson in Australia and other parts of the world. Statistics from reputable institutions such as the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) provides trends in arson cases that illustrate the theoretical scope of strain theories. Strain theories include the relative deprivation theory, institutional theory, anomie theory, and the general strain theory. Of great relevance to understanding whether arson is a crime of insanity or change are the general strain theory and relative deprivation theory. It is important to discuss the coherence of statistics of arson offenses to the theoretical assertions of general strain theory and the relative causation theory.
The general strain theory was postulated by Agnew (1985 and 1992). In theory, Agnew posits that life experiences that cause strain lead to negative emotions. Negative emotions lead to negative outcomes such as delinquency. Causes of strain as asserted in theory include the failure of an individual to achieve their valued goals such as money and status, the withdrawal of a positively valued stimuli (through an event such as losing a valued possession), and the availability of a negatively-valued stimuli. Agnew is quite specific in providing the main features of strains that predispose individuals to crime. He asserts that a strain must be seen as unjust, must be associated with low social control, create the incentive to engage in criminal activities, and be of significant magnitude. A person exposed to a strain with these features is likely to develop negative emotions against others because they see them as the cause of failure or predicament.
In regard to findings on the patterns of arson as crime, there is significant consistency with the findings of AIC on the propensity of criminal behavior in relation to socioeconomic disadvantages as well as economic struggles have a strong linkage to the likelihood of an individual to resort to arson. Other than simply view it in criminal terms, arson has been found to be associated with poverty. The AIC notes that some demographic groups that have a higher propensity to arson incidences than others. The study found that poverty rate and retail wage has a causative relationship with arson. Poverty rate had a positive relationship with rate of bushfires. Retail wage had a negative relationship with the rate of bushfire incidences, meaning that people with lower wage rates had a higher propensity to arson than people with higher wage rates. It is therefore for acts of arson to be investigated in terms of the socio-economic and psychological issues that lead people to be involved in arson. The possible explanation for this is that low-income groups or people living in poverty do not have access to mental treatment. The prevalence of bushfires in poverty-stricken regions could, possibly, be as a result of delusions rather than the criminal intent of the offender. On the other hand, it could also be as a result of a reaction to feelings of social inequity. Perpetrators of bushfires could as well use it as a means to communicate their desire for social change.
The relative deprivation theory as posited by Crosby (1976 and 1988) states that people’s perceptions of their well-being in comparison the same country may also be a cause of negative feelings that lead them to crime. Thus, objective conditions may not have any impact on people’s decisions to engage in crime. In fact the perceptions of deprivation in relation to others are in many cases far from the reality, but they have a significant bearing on the patters of crimes. Relative deprivation perceptions are common in societies that are highly stratified like Australia and other countries with predominant western ideals. This could be rational explanation for the prior life experiences of a suspected arsonist that has always been difficult to ascertain by law enforcement agencies. Moreover, the preconceived assumptions about the person or persons may not come to fruition because they do not amount to sufficient evidence that warrants an excuse of insanity or the agitation for change. Statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology indicates that there are 52,000 bushfires every year. Half of the bushfires are caused intentionally or suspected to be acts of arson. AIC contends also contends that arson must have the intent to destroy, an actual lighting of a fire, and an actual property being burned (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2016). The challenge therefore lies in proving beyond the reasonable doubt that the fire was set with a willful intent to destroy. In Australia, bushfires tend to pose the biggest challenge because it is also difficult to determine the identity of a suspected arsonist. The AIC observes that people willfully light fires for various reasons, including legitimate and legal ones. An example provided is that people may set fires at home in a fire place, a camp place in a designated place. They may also conduct the burning in a controlled and registered manner and acceptable land management purposes. In such cases, it has always been insidious, yet it is challenging to identify the identity of person who set up the fire. In the event that the identity of the perpetrator, accomplices, and violator has been identified, the challenge of determining a criminal intent remains real. In such cases, insanity has always been invoked as the defense. Furthermore, it is quite difficult to draw a clear line for an act of arson in which the perpetrator is alleged to be mentally ill. H. Prince (2016) observes that even people who are mentally ill may have no impairment of memory. Some can give persuasive rationalized arguments that make their actions prosecutable in court.
Policy makers in law enforcement should possibly find the relationship between feelings of relative deprivation among non-indigenous communities, indigenous communities, and others. The culture as well as the beliefs of others is an imperative issue when it comes to determining causation of arson. Statistics by the AIC indicate that males have been involved in acts of arson than females. Among juvenile offenders, 91 per cent are males while 9 per cent are female. Among adult offenders, 88 per cent are males while 12 per cent are females. Demographics as posted by the AIC could be an important pointer towards cultural motivations of arson. 37 per cent of juvenile arson offenders are indigenous people, 55 per cent are non-indigenous while 8 per cent belong to neither of the categories. Among adult offenders, 20 per cent are indigenous, 76 per cent are non-indigenous, while 4 per cent belong to neither of the groups (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2016). Arson has not been properly defined by law. Consequently, there are many interpretation and many offenders being involved in it and serve minimal punishment. The AIC asserts that the overlap between the traditional meaning of arson and the criminal aspects of destruction of property and offenses against a person pose the greatest challenge in developing a consistent meaning for arson. Within Australia, different jurisdictions vary in the way they prescribe the intent in arson. There are 58 pieces legislation that address the problem of damages and injury. Thus, cases where bushfires have been caused by mere recklessness or the desire to cause massive destruction and death are difficult to classify as arson. In this case, it has often been a challenge to secure a conviction against arson. Labree et al. (2010) found that arsonists had more often been the subject of a psychiatric treatment in the period before they commit their index offence with a history of alcohol addiction than other offenders of other serious crimes. They also found the delusional thinking had a significant role on the actions of arsonists.
An individuals’ mental health, past experiences, and life events, often dictate their likelihood to be proven as an arsonist, or to resort to recidivism in this instance. Koscis (2002) that personality disorders and psychopathological factors could also be the driving factors behind increased cases of arson in Australia and other parts of the world. For instance, a schizophrenic individual often has an impaired judgment of their true self and the environment around them. In the context of arson, a person having paranoid delusions of being persecuted by the government or another party may set a house of fire in the belief that the house has surveillance equipment being used to monitor their movements. In reality, there is no such surveillance on the individual. When such an individual is arrested, psychotherapy is the solution because in this case it is an act of insanity arising from the individual’s delusions rather than the intent to destroy property or harm people using the fire.
Rebellion is a notable and common element behind the apprehension for apparent vindication of an individual to be an arsonist. Prins (2016) categorically explains how arson can be an act of rebellion. Arson has been used as a tool of political rebellion in history. It entails the desire to destroy the property of political opponents. For instance, the alleged destruction “second homes” by Welsh activists is an example of arson for rebellion. Prins, however, notes that even rebellious arsonists usually have psychopathological elements, such as the feeling of the power such activities may provide. This example resonates with what happened in Barbados during their colonial period. Landless workers in Barbados operated plantation-based cells that spoke on behalf of contracted workers on a daily basis to determine the nature of freedom in the workplace. Their strike actions involved frequent burning of plantation as an act of rebellion and negotiation. Arson was a popular instrument of resistance during slavery that persisted into the free society.
Common law has comprehensive conditions that differentiate arson from other burning activities that could be viewed as less of a crime. Nonetheless, burning property may end up being treated as arson notwithstanding the intentions of the perpetrators. Even if they may have been protesting against some of injustice, it can still amount to arson as long as law enforcers enable the prosecutors to establish a significant level of intent. Common law practice stipulates that a perpetrator of arson is one who burns their own property or that of others. It encompasses not only those who directly cause the burning but also those who assist perpetrators from burning through counsel or procurement of burning material. The law puts the threshold of successful prosecution on the proof that there was the actual intent to commit arson. Sadler, Jr. (1950) provides specific motivations that could be contrasted with intent. The author’s discussion fundamentally creates the basis upon which the difference between arson as an act of change or an act of insanity could be determined. First there must be evidence of actual burning or an attempt to conspire to burn depending on the degree of destruction as caused by the burn. Evidence of fire must have some form of ignition for it to constitute an offense. Saddler, Jr. also insists that guilt on the part of the accused must have a convincing level of personal involvement either through individual ignition, physical presence at the scene of fire, aiding or abetting. Secondly, arson involves corpus delicti. Corpus delicti means that the fire that destroyed property was of incendiary origin, which means a direct sense of malice and intent to destroy. The statutory requirements in Australia, however, insist on the need for proof of specific intent. The threshold of specific intent may attract insanity as a defense, but not the agitation for change as the motivation to burn property.
In conclusion, arson is a comprehensive legal term that varies with jurisdictions. The biggest challenge of defining arson is that it is difficult to determine the intent for the perpetrator. Strain theories and psychological theories of crime have a significant concordance with statistical and empirical findings on the patterns of arson in Australia. As scholarly research indicates, there are many grounds upon which individuals accused of arson could be vindicated. Some people set property on fire as an act of rebellion. Others do so due to their psychopathic disorders. It has also been established that psychological disorders such as schizophrenic individuals may experience delusions that lead them to set property on fire. These considerations make create the ambiguity of whether arson could be viewed as an act of change or an act of insanity.
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