Arson Rate Reported at Historic Low

March 2, 2005

In 2003, the rate of arson offenses relative to population decreased by 6 percent from the previous year, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The number of intentionally set structure fires in 2003 dropped to 37,500, marking the lowest number recorded in the 27 years studied.

Civilian deaths and property damage in intentional structure fires in 2003 also dropped to historic lows of 305 and $692 million, respectively.

For the ninth straight year, juvenile fire-setters accounted for half or more (50.8%) of those arrested for the crime. Though the percentage of children fire-setters under 10 is by far the lowest (3.2% in 2003) since at least 1980, that percentage is still much higher than for any other crime the FBI tracks.

Dispelling the myth that arson is the fastest-growing crime in America, the report cites an overall decline in intentional fires and arson in structures or vehicles, and that continues a downward trend in set fires since 1980.

Wider use of sophisticated investigative techniques that may give a truer picture of fire causes could account for the downward trends, according to NFPA. Other possible factors include more widespread counseling for juvenile fire-setters, arson task forces and other anti-arson programs, and decline in the arson-prone age and gender in the general population.

Cities versus towns: Relative to population, the rates of intentional structure fires are highest in large cities, but rural communities have higher rates than do small towns.

Residential versus non-residential: Every year, the majority of intentionally set structure fires occur in homes, which is perhaps not surprising, when half or more of arson arrestees are juveniles. Of the homes suffering intentional fires in the latest statistics, one-forth to one-third were vacant, idle, under construction, or being renovated or demolished.

Possible remedies: Extending anti-arson programs across the country should produce a decline in arson, and improving inter-agency cooperation will make arson task forces and strike force programs more effective. Counseling programs for juvenile fire-setters should follow new models that tailor treatment to the particular circumstances of each fire-setter.

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