Under the criminal law, arson is committed when a person intentionally burns almost any kind of structure or building, not just a house or business. Criminal law does recognize differing degrees of arson, based on such factors as whether the building was occupied and whether insurance fraud was intended.
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Arson is a crime punishable in a court of law, irregardless of the motive behind it, be it revenge, peer-pressured vandalism, criminal concealment, insurance fraud, extreme activists, or simple boredom. According to arson statistics of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an estimated 16,163 individuals were arrested for arson in 2003 – 84.4% were male and 50.8% were under the age of 18, an alarming 31.2% of which were under the age of 15 (Federal Bureau of Investigation – Press Release). The number of arson crimes has increased in recent years with statistics reflecting arrests totaling 16,582 in 2006, a rise of 3% from 2003 (FBI- Crime in the United States 2006). Preliminary crime reports for the first half of 2007 should be released in late 2008. While it is difficult to determine how often arson occurs nationwide, wild fires are causing millions of dollars in damage.
Most recently, a spike in the foreclosure rate has raised fear in many insurance companies that clients might see arson as an escape from overwhelming debts. In a report from the Coalition against Insurance Fraud, it was noted that “with untold thousands of homeowners struggling with ballooning sub-prime mortgage payments, fraud fighters are watching closely for a spike in arson by desperate homeowners who can no longer afford their home payments.” An example of such a case occurred in Russellville, Indiana, whereby Christina Snyder allegedly approached her neighbor and propositioned her with a $5,000 payoff if she would help burn down her house, while making it look like an attempted rape and arson. The neighbor declined and reported Snyder to the police. The claim would have paid out $80,000. Authorities are on the alert, as are insurance companies, for arson-related insurance fraud.
Current Punishment Procedures in the United States
Most often, fires are set during the night, making it difficult for investigators to find an eye witness. Nonetheless, many arson cases are solved and brought to trial, even though bringing justice against these criminals is not easy without sound and irrevocable proof. The punishment for such crimes varies from state to state, and the graveness of the crime is taken into consideration. Though extremely rare, some states will implement capital punishment if the arson case involves the death of a victim. The most common sentence is on average 7 years, but if the property involved occupied residential homes, the sentence can entail an average of 20 years or more.