FROM shoplifting to car thefts, the dishonest appropriation of property has many guises that can cause difficulty for magistrates and judges.
How does one draw a distinction between a teenager caught taking a chocolate bar at a supermarket and an organised gang stealing designer goods?
How can one adequately reflect the risk of harm caused by certain types of theft, for instance when metal looters endanger motorists by taking manhole covers from our roads?
And how does one take into account the loss certain thefts cause to our national heritage, for example when plaques are stolen from a war memorial?
Now, the independent body responsible for drawing up such guidelines, the Sentencing Council, is seeking to address gaps identified in the current guidance used by the courts.
The council is putting new proposals out to consultation to ensure that courts have effective and up-to-date guidelines leading to consistent and proportionate sentences to offenders.
As it launched its consultation, the independent body set up by Parliament said the existing guidance assessed the harm to the victim by looking at the offence type and financial loss caused. The new guidelines go further, it says, by considering the broader impact of the theft on the victim.
Hence the new guidance is taking new factors into account such as emotional distress, fear and loss of confidence caused by the crime.
Enshrined in the new guidelines is the recognition that theft is not a victimless crime.
Although theft, by definition, is not accompanied by force or the threat of force like a robbery, the council stresses it can nonetheless harm businesses.
Hence the draft guideline emphasises not only the loss of business, but also takes into consideration the size or type of business, saying a shop owner can be particularly hard hit.
The British Retail Consortium has responded positively to the Sentencing Council’s efforts to take these factors into consideration, saying store thefts cost businesses more than half a billion pounds in 2013.
Its director general Helen Dickinson said: “We welcome the development of a new sentencing guideline for theft offences, with a clearer focus on retailers as victims. Theft from stores pushed the direct cost of retail crime up to £511m last year, with the average cost of each theft rising by 62 per cent to £177.
“Far from being victimless, we all pay for this increased stealing through higher prices and, increasingly, shop closures and damage to our town centres.”
Crime victim charity Victim Support also praised the council for seeking to recognise the “emotional scars” left by thieves.
Charity assistant chief executive Adam Pemberton said: “It is right that the courts should consider all the harm done to a victim when deciding what sentence a criminal should serve.
“Thieves don’t just rob people of things with financial or sentimental value. They also leave behind emotional and psychological scars on their victims.
“When the courts are dealing with repeat offenders, the proposed guidelines would give judges and magistrates greater flexibility.
“In such cases, prison sentences can give victims respite from being repeatedly targeted.”
The Police and Crime Commissioner for Gwent, Ian Johnston, declined to comment on the draft guidelines, as did Gwent Police, who said they could not do so, as is usual with legislation and governmental decisions.
South Wales East AM William Graham, who has sat as a Newport magistrate, said he would welcome guidelines that increased the punishment handed to people who receive stolen goods, in particular those who deal with cable and memorial plaque thefts.
He told the Argus: “During the 20 years I sat as a magistrate in Newport my colleagues and I campaigned for more effective sentencing for the crime of receiving.
“In the Assembly I have questioned ministers on the problem of metal thefts from memorials and the railway signalling systems.
“I believe that if the receivers of stolen goods were more heavily punished the incidence of theft would decline.”
Mr Graham is also keen to see that guidelines remain flexible so as to reflect local conditions and emphasise rehabilitation.
He said: “My opinion remains that the length of a custodial sentence should be influenced by the rehabilitation element of custodial institutions.
“The better the rehabilitation, particularly of young offenders, directly reduces re-offending. The restorative justice programme demonstrates this very well.”
The Sentencing Council acknowledged that thefts were frequently committed by those with underlying drug and alcohol problems, and rehabilitating criminals to stop them re-offending could sometimes be best met by the imposition of a community order with a drug rehabilitation requirement.
In addition, it stressed that guidelines must be followed, unless a judge or magistrate feels it is not in the interests of justice to do so.
If a judge or magistrate believes that a guideline prevents the correct sentence from being given in an exceptional case, he or she can sentence outside of the guideline.
l People can respond to the whole consultation or just focus on specific issues or offence types that are of particular interest to them. The consultation ends on June 26. To take part in the exercise, log on to www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk