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The emotional distress incurred by victims of theft will assist judges in deciding what sentence should be handed down to offenders. 

Sentencing Council’s new guidelines on theft

New guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council formally enable courts to take into account issues beyond that of the financial losses of victims of theft. The move provides judges and magistrates with a range of options so they can decide the most appropriate sentence for each offender. Significant weighting will be given, as the Sentencing Council states, to “the level of harm to the victim, the financial values involved, how blameworthy the offender is and what is best suited to both punish the offender and prevent reoffending”. 

Although similar measures already exist for burglary, the new rules apply to all cases of theft, one of the most commonly dealt with offences by the courts with over 91,000 sentenced a year. In a statement, Jill Gramann from the Sentencing Council said the shift in sentencing would mean “the harm caused to the victim is central to the sentencing decision”. 

Assessing the emotional impact on victims 

While the volume of stolen items still remains an important factor in sentencing, it’s our understanding that more consideration will be given to how the crime has made the victim or victims feel, and how it has disrupted their lives and impacted on their confidence. 

Whilst magistrates would previously have taken into account the sentimental value of items, the new guidance sends a clear message that the cost of an individual item is not the only element valued by the courts. 

If we look at the theft of smartphones the emotional impact on the victim can be significant. It’s not just the fear associated with the theft itself but the inconvenience and anxiety it can cause as phones contain highly sensitive data and irreplaceable photographs. 

The move to introduce the latest guidelines has not been without debate though with concerns focusing on the finite details of how such an assessment of harm should be conducted. The Council has headed concerns and simplified the assessment process. 

In the shop theft guideline for example, not only is the financial value of the items taken into account, there’s a focus on the specific impact on retailers based on their size and type. 

This is a step welcomed by retailers, as Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, says: “It is positive that the new guidelines allow sentencers to take into account the full impact of theft offences, which includes the non-financial consequences for businesses and their staff.”

Consideration given to risk of harm to people

What’s more, other factors that make an offence of theft more serious under the new guidelines include those whose offence poses a risk of harm to people; for example, where railway tracks or electrical cables have been stolen. In the case of missing railway track, where “disruption is caused to infrastructure”, sentencing should take into account the distress and inconvenience caused to passengers. 

The guidelines will also consider the broader impact of theft on the community, with damage caused to historic objects, such as war memorials, resulting in harsher sentencing. 

With the War Memorials Trust estimating that one monument a week is a target for metal thieves, who remove copper or gold plaques to realise their scrap metal value, it’s hoped the new guidelines will also send out a clear message of zero tolerance to offenders. 

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