Theft offences: new sentencing guidelines announced

Today, the Sentencing Council has published new guidelines for how offenders convicted of theft should be sentenced.

Theft is one of the most common offences that courts deal with – more than 91,000 offenders were sentenced last year. The guidelines will apply to the full range of theft offences, such as shop theft, pick-pocketing, handling stolen goods, stealing by employees or care workers and abstraction of electricity.

For the first time, the courts will have comprehensive guidance to help them to sentence the great variety of offending and offenders that come before them. Until now, some common types of theft such as theft of a motor vehicle or bicycle, have had to be sentenced using guidelines for similar offences – these guidelines now bring together specific guidance on these offences.

While the value of items stolen remains an important factor in sentencing these offences, the guidelines will bring a clear focus on the impact of thefts on victims beyond financial loss. These offences can cause emotional distress, loss of confidence and great disruption and inconvenience.

The guidelines take account of this and set out a comprehensive assessment of the harm to the victim. The guidelines also set out for the first time that if an offence involves the theft of historic objects or the loss of the nation’s heritage, this can make an offence more serious. This could include damage to war memorials when thieves steal metal plaques from them, or even theft of objects from an historic shipwreck.

Other factors making an offence more serious under the new guidelines include thefts that risk harm to people. This would include offences where electrical cables are stolen, which present an obvious danger of injury to the public.

In introducing these guidelines, the Sentencing Council has not set out to change overall sentencing levels, but rather to provide comprehensive guidance and introduce a standard approach to sentencing, ensuring that certain factors are always taken into account. They give a range of options to judges and magistrates so they can decide the most appropriate sentence for each offender, depending on 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.

The guidelines are being introduced following a public consultation, which was generally supportive, but led to some changes. For example, consultation respondents strongly supported the Council’s decision to consider the wider impact of thefts on victims, but suggested that the process for conducting the assessment of harm could be clearer. The Council listened to this, and the assessment has been simplified.

Jill Gramann, Sentencing Council member and magistrate, said:

“Theft offences are some of the most common crimes that come before the courts, and these offences vary greatly. They range from someone stealing from shops to fund an addiction to organised gangs stealing designer goods to order, or people diverting electricity to power a cannabis farm.

“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.”

Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:

“We welcome the way in which the Sentencing Council has sought the views of retailers in developing the new Theft Sentencing Guideline.  In volume terms, theft is the top crime concern for retailers and our data shows that the average cost of each theft suffered by our members soared to £241 in 2013-14.  It is positive that the new guideline allows sentencers to take into account the full impact of theft offences, which includes the non-financial consequences for businesses and their staff.”

Welcoming the new guidelines, Mark Harrison, National Policing and Crime Adviser for Historic England said: “

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.”

“The new guidelines will help the courts identify all the relevant factors to include in their sentencing decisions in relation to heritage crime including ‘going equipped to steal,’ ‘the act of theft’ and ‘handling stolen goods’. It will also aid Historic England’s work with the Police and Crown Prosecution Service in bringing theft cases to court where it involves loss and damage to a significant ‘heritage asset’.”

Richard Monkhouse, National Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said:

“Theft is one of the most frequent offences dealt with in the magistrates’ court and they are highly varied. Likewise, the impact on victims is equally as varied, ranging from financial loss to reduced confidence. It’s well worth noting that shops and small businesses trying to make a living feel this the most acutely.

“On behalf of magistrates, we welcome 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.”