EDITORIAL WEDNESDAY 11.02.09.
Yesterday I spoke about four questions that need answers in relation to the Victorian bushfire tragedy. Mush of my discussion was to do with the first three questions which were about hazard reduction, construction codes, and the debate over the “stay and defend” policy. The fourth question was the question of how to deal with arsonists. In many ways, this is the most difficult question. That’s because the first three can be the subject of rational inquiry and judgments can be made on the basis of accumulated evidence and analysis. When it comes to the fourth question however, much of the discussion is centered around simply increasing penalties.
While it provides some sense of satisfaction to think of harsher penalties applying, especially in such extreme circumstances, the truth is that tougher penalties alone are not the answer. In the wake of the unprecedented devastation in Victoria references to “mass murder” and “fire terrorists” have been used with ample justification. There is also justification for the suggestion that perhaps a new category of crime should be created to reflect the seriousness of what has occurred. However, the evidence available suggests that jail sentences are not a deterrent to arsonists for the simple reason that arsonists are motivated by psychological flaws which will not be made to go away no matter how long an arsonist might be locked up.
Imprisonment is not going to rehabilitate an arsonist, and the threat of prison is not going to be a deterrent. Of course, if an arsonist is found guilty of mass murder and is locked away for life it does at least prevent him from doing it again. While that is a good thing, the majority of arsonists are locked away for shorter periods of time, only to be released at some stage with no reduction in the likelihood of reoffending. And while imprisonment can keep the community safe for a time by removing an offender from the community, it doesn’t prevent the offence in the first place.
It turns out that although there are some early intervention programs for juvenile offenders intended to identify and redirect troubled youth, there is very little in place to specifically deal with personality types who might evolve into arsonists. More to the point, there is also very little research available on the psychological profile of arsonists and the ways in which such thought processes work. The research which is available points to individuals who are almost always male, socially inadequate, and may be angry with society, seeking attention or power, or simply bored and sociopathic.
Over the past thirty years the incidence of arson has increased out of all proportion to the growth in population. The mere fact that arson is becoming more common should be enough to tell us that there is something we are missing. Whether it is a matter of social maladaption, or some form of personality disorder, or whatever the explanation might be, present measures are not preventing offenders from committing arson, or from becoming repeat offenders. While I believe it is appropriate to make stronger penalties available, especially for the extreme circumstances we have seen this week, it is also important to commit greater efforts to understanding the psychology of arson and preventing such behavior before it develops. To achieve that, it is necessary to apply the same principles of rational inquiry and evidentiary analysis to the matter of arsonists as to the other questions of fire safety strategy.
It may seem like trying to make sense out of what is essentially senseless, but it’s a step towards reducing the risk of such things happening again.