Arson – or the intentional burning of a structure or other property– is a serious crime in the United States that federal and state authorities alike tend to be extremely concerned with. Because it can cause significant property damage and potentially take lives, as well, arson is something that police have to take extremely seriously. With that in mind, there is much to know about how law enforcement is currently dealing with the problem, and the courts are doing to punish those who commit arson.
Because of the extent of the problem, the FBI has strict national reporting standards. It requires law enforcement agencies from around the country to compile data and submit reports on incidents that have been found to be intentional. Just less than 50,000 arsons were reported in 2010. Of that number, around 48-percent were dwellings, while a quarter of the reported cases were vehicles. Timber and other property fire accounted for the rest of the percentage. With each case of arson, the average dollar loss for the property owner was just more than $17,000. The 2010 numbers are the most current provided, but they are generally thought to be a reflection of the current arson reality.
Federal law makes arson illegal in those places where the federal government has territorial or maritime jurisdiction. According to the US Code, a person guilty of arson in the federal context can face 25 years in prison. Different states have also developed their own approaches to dealing with arson. In Texas, arson is a felony because it has the potential to cause death or great bodily harm. Depending upon which structure is damaged, whether there are injuries, and the mental state of the person committing the crime, it can be punished in different degrees. The Texas statute states:
Sec. 28.02. ARSON. (a) A person commits an offense if the person starts a fire, regardless of whether the fire continues after ignition, or causes an explosion with intent to destroy or damage:
(1) any vegetation, fence, or structure on open-space land; or
(2) any building, habitation, or vehicle:
Given the potential damage that can occur when there is an arson, the federal government has come up with a number of different strategies for containing and preventing this crime. The US Fire Administration takes the lead in trying to rally various organizations to prevent arson in various communities. Many federal, state, and local agencies can ultimately partner together in order to identify problems and stop them before they lead to arson. For instance, in some communities, young people will set fire to structures because they think it is “fun” of “adventurous.” In other areas, the arson problems are bigger and more serious. The federal government works with localities to figure out where the arson problems are coming from and what needs to be done to deal with the people who are setting fire to structures. This “community arson” approach depends upon people within communities to submit information that can be analyzed by fire prevention groups and the federal government.
Likewise, there have been advanced in science that have allowed authorities to know when arson is present. Specifically, new science gives law enforcement a better idea of when accelerants have been used to cause fires. This has been an extremely necessary innovation in some places, including in Texas, where a man named Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for an arson-murder that modern science suggests might have actually been an accident. With this new “arson science,” experts have much more capacity to understand and identify when arson has taken place versus when it has not.
- Dolan, Mairead, and Janet Stanley. “Risk factors for juvenile firesetting.”Advancing Bushfire Arson Prevention in Australia (2010): 31.
- Giannelli, Paul C. “The Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham: Junk Science, an Innocent Man, and the Politics of Death.” Case Legal Studies Research Paper 2011-18 (2011).
- McEwan, Troy, and Ian Freckelton. “Assessment, treatment and sentencing of arson offenders: An overview.” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 18.3 (2011): 319-328.