This sample Arson Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Like other free research paper examples it is not a custom research paper. If you need help with writing your assignment, please use research paper writing services and buy a research paper on any topic.
- Juvenile Firesetters: Typologies
- Other Behavioral Problems
- Arson Committed by Adults
- Arson From A Cross-Cultural Perspective
- Legal and Treatment Options
America is burning, and in many instances it is America’s children that are setting the fires. According to government statistics, the United States has the highest rate of arson in the world.
Figures on arson have been collected by the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) since 1979, when arson was elevated to a Type I offense. Defined as “any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling, house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, or the personal property of another,” arson is a unique offense because it is not always investigated by law enforcement. In some communities, arson offenses are handled by fire marshals within the local fire department. In such cases, the incidents are less likely to be reported to the UCR program, which means that arson data are likely underreported.
According to national figures released in 2004, an estimated 16,163 persons were arrested for arson the previous year. Based on the actual number of arrests reported by the 9,790 agencies submitting 12 months of data, the nation’s arrest rate for arson was calculated at 5.6 per 100,000 persons.
Nationwide, 2003 arson arrests showed a decrease of nearly 5.8 percent from the previous year’s figure. Arrests of juveniles (persons under the age of 18) decreased by 3.5 percent, and adult arrests decreased by 8.3 percent.
Juvenile involvement in arson has consistently been higher than juvenile involvement in all other Type I index crimes. In 2003, half of all persons arrested for arson were juveniles. In particular, those under 15 years of age accounted for close to 32 percent of the arson arrest total.
A recent publication titled Handbook on Firesetting in Children and Youth notes that a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States every 17 seconds and arrives too late to save someone’s life at least ten times a day. More than $10 trillion is lost in property damage due to arson each year, the highest per capita rate of any industrialized country.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), most of the 1.8 million fires reported to fire departments per year could easily have been prevented. Structural modifications could have prevented many residential fires, which typically account for the vast majority of the nearly 4,000 fire deaths and are caused, for the most part, by careless smoking or kids playing with matches.
Juvenile Firesetters: Typologies
Each year the percentage of young teens arrested for the crime of arson in the United States is higher than that for any other Type I crime and most Type II crimes (except vandalism, running away, and curfew violations). Juvenile firesetters have been understood and classified in a variety of typologies. One system categorizes them into the following types: (1) the “playing with matches” firesetter, (2) the “crying for help” firesetter, (3) the “delinquent” firesetter, and (4) the “severely disturbed” firesetter.
- The Playing with Matches Firesetter. Generally this type is a young person between the ages of 4 and 9 years who lacks proper fire safety education. For instance, this type of youngster often finds parents’ matches left unattended and plays with them, accidentally starting a fire with disastrous results. Typically, these youngsters start fires early in the morning, in or around the house. This child can be helped by instruction in the proper use of fire ignition materials.
- The Crying for Help Firesetter. This type of firesetter is typically a preadolescent, age 7 to13, who turns to fire play to reduce stress. The items that are set on fire themselves indicate what kind of stress the child is under. An example is the child who sets his mother’s bed on fire while her new boyfriend is taking a shower in an adjoining bathroom. Another is the youngster who burns his father’s wedding pictures on the anniversary of the second marriage. The stress events that most often precede an act of arson include the death of a favorite relative, the presence of a new sibling, a physical move, the loss of a pet, or the recent divorce or separation of parents. In the case of female firesetters, the stressful event is often sexual abuse. Regardless of the issue, these youngsters have difficulty expressing their feelings of sorrow, rage, or anger, and turn to fire play as a means of relieving the stress or getting back at their antagonists. If these children are not given psychological counseling to deal with their problems and understand why setting fires is an inappropriate behavior, they often turn to fire play whenever they feel frustrated or powerless.
- The Delinquent Firesetter. This third type of juvenile firesetter is often an older adolescent or teenager. Typically these youngsters take out their frustration on school property, setting fire to the building or surrounding areas on the way home. Often the fires are set in retaliation for a perceived or real slight by peers or teachers; they are commonly set in the afternoon or on the weekends. These delinquent firesetters may also break into the school to commit acts of vandalism or mischief, setting a fire to cover their tracks. Sometimes kids set fires in groups or pairs, and are encouraged by other youngsters. Typically they are discovered because they brag to their friends about what they have done. For a first offense—depending on the severity of the fire—juvenile courts typically sentence them to community service, to pay restitution, and to seek psychological counseling. Recidivist delinquent firesetters may be sentenced to the state’s youth authority.
- The Severely Disturbed Firesetter. The last type of juvenile firesetter most clearly fits the image of the classic pyromaniac. This is the youngster who is obsessed with fire. In this case, firesetting is typically used as a means of reprisal. These arsonists are often “crying for help” firesetters who never received any form of early intervention. Firesetting therefore becomes a patterned response as the child grows older; the arsonist activities become more calculated and potentially dangerous.
Although few in number compared to the other three types of juvenile firesetters, these often psychotic youngsters can cause significant damage to persons and property with the fires they set. It is not unusual for them to have set hundreds of fires before being apprehended. Once captured, they are given psychological treatment and are often incarcerated in the most secure juvenile justice lock-up facilities.
Others classify juvenile firesetters into three general groups. The first comprises children under the age of 7 who set fires by accident or out of curiosity. Children in the second group range in age from 8 to 12, and their firesetting behavior is generally attributed to underlying psychosocial conflicts. Youngsters in the third group, composed of adolescents between 13 and 18, tend to have a history of recidivist firesetting behavior; often they set fires as a result of unresolved psychosocial conflict or intentional criminal behavior.
Still others categorize juvenile firesetters in terms of their risk levels, defining risk as “the likelihood that youth will engage in continued firesetting.” According to The Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Handbook, the three levels are little risk, definite risk, and extreme risk. Those with little risk are motivated by curiosity and experimentation; most will curtail such activity with proper supervision and educational intervention. Those with definite risk include the troubled and delinquent juveniles who exhibit a certain pattern of aggressive, deviant, and criminal behavior. Finally, those few with extreme risk suffer from severe mental disorders, including psychotic disturbances or neurological problems.
Other Behavioral Problems
Firesetting is not an isolated activity. It is typically accompanied by a series of other behavioral problems that a concerned family member or adult would quickly be able to recognize. In a study comparing a group of sixty-nine adjudicated juvenile firesetters with a matched group of seventy-eight nonfiresetters, thirty-three items out of a list of eighty-four behaviors (or 40 percent) distinguished the firesetter group. The most statistically significant differentiators were stealing and truancy, followed by lying, behavioral problems in school, being easily led by one’s peers, and hyperactivity.
Even compared with the carefully matched group, differences were noted in social background. The firesetters, for instance, were more likely to come from families of divorce or separation, have recently experienced a death in the family (i.e., a grandparent or parent), have a parent who had remarried, or come from a family that moved frequently. The birth of a new sibling and instances of physical and/or sexual abuse were also more frequent among firesetters.
Furthermore, the younger firesetters (ages 4 through 8) exhibited a tendency toward the following behavioral characteristics: destroying one’s own toys, displacing anger on one’s self, stuttering, cruelty to animals, and bedwetting (enuresis). The older preteens (ages 9 through 12) showed inordinate occurrences of stealing, nightmares and other sleep disturbances, bizarre speech patterns, solitary play, uncontrollable anger, accident proneness, and depression. Finally, the teenagers (ages 13 through 17) experienced symptoms of being out of touch with reality, were poor losers, had strange thought patterns, hallucinations, and phobias, and were jealous of siblings or peers.
Arson Committed by Adults
Although all willfully destructive firesetting is a form of arson, the latter term is more commonly used to refer to fires intentionally set by adults rather than juveniles. Studies have shown that adult arson offenders, though classified as violent, appear to have lower rates of interpersonal aggression than other violent offenders. The motives of adult arsonists are also different from those of most other adult offenders. Moreover, the types of fires adults set generally differ from those set by juveniles.
Adult arsonists may set fires for a variety of reasons, including the following: revenge, jealousy, or hatred; financial gain (mostly insurance fraud); intimidating or extorting others (often involving organized crime); concealing or facilitating the commitment of other crimes; and gaining attention. Others may commit arson as a political or religious gesture (terrorist act or self-immolation), under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or for sexual gratification or excitement.
Other adult arsonists include those who aspire to be heroes, to become firefighters. Such “hero-setters,” “volunteer” firefighters, or “want-to-be” firefighters, often are apprehended near the fires they set, as they seek immediate recognition for reporting the fire or assisting real firefighters. In recent years, a series of high-profile arsonists in America have engaged in this type of behavior.
In terms of punishment for arson, modern statutes distinguish not only between degrees of severity but also between the kinds of property set on fire. The most severe punishments are given to those who ignite dwellings, since such acts carry a higher risk of fatalities. Although arson and burglary are both classified as property crimes, arson is viewed as the more violent crime—and carries stiffer penalties—even though there are fewer overall incidences.
Arson from a Cross-Cultural Perspective
Arson is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In such countries as Australia, New Zealand, and England, where the rates of arson are significantly lower than in the United States, studies of juvenile firesetting have revealed distinctive patterns. In Australia, for instance, 85 percent of school fires are reported to be arson-related. In New Zealand, where typical juvenile arson offenses also involve school fires, such incidents account for 90 percent of all fire damage to state property.
In England, where fire investigation teams have been in operation only since 1983, actual incidents of reported arson have been quite low compared to the United States. One explanation may be differences in the way authorities categorize the offense. Whereas police contend that only 3 percent of fires in a recent year were arson-related, fire investigators claimed that 40 percent were cases of “deliberate ignition” (the British term for arson).
In London, fires set by delinquent youth seem to be racially motivated as well. In recent years, white youth gangs have been apprehended for setting fire to Indian and Pakistani homes and commercial establishments. In such cases, graffiti is often evident (perhaps as a warning) before the fires are set. (In the United States, by contrast, gang members may set revenge fires on the “turf” of rival gangs—without warning—in retaliation for intrusion into the drug market, attacks on members, or other aggressive activities.)
Solid data on the overall incidences of arson in other countries is sparse. Although the crime is universal, attention in many countries is often directed at identifying and combating other types of crimes in which the incidence rate, financial losses, and injuries to persons are significantly higher than those resulting from arson.
Legal and Treatment Options
Several legal actions may be taken with juvenile firesetters. For some, a simple citation may be issued mandating the youngster to appear before the probation officer at juvenile court. Some may be sent to a diversion program, and the family required to participate in family therapy. Some youngsters are placed on probation and ordered by the court to participate in a number of activities. Those deemed to be a threat to others or themselves may be placed in detention. Prolonged institutional care and custody are also options available to judges and other law enforcement agencies.
In recent years a variety of books and treatment manuals have been published to assist with the identification, intervention, education, and rehabilitation of juvenile firesetters. In the 1980s, a program called “Firehawks” was begun in the San Francisco area, where some young firebugs were paired with firemen in a kind of “big brother” support program. Prescreened firemen were assigned to selected youngsters to educate them about the severity of irresponsible fire play and channel their interests into constructive activities, such as promoting fire safety education. The program, copied throughout the United States and other countries, eventually was cut back due to a lack of funds.
Most metropolitan fire departments now have a paraprofessional staff to assist concerned parents who call in asking for help in dealing with a child who plays with matches.
A variety of age-appropriate interventions and educational booklets are available for those youngsters apprehended for setting fires. Either skilled therapists or probation officers will then work with them. Some use different forms of behavioral modification; others promote educational interventions by having, for instance, youngsters fulfill the requirements of the Boy Scouts’ “Fire Safety” merit badge. The more serious offenders are treated in specialized medical settings at adolescent treatment hospitals or juvenile correctional institutions.
Therapeutic intervention is available to adult arsonists as well. Depending on the motivations behind the fires they set, they may be treated in a psychiatric ward or other therapeutic facility. Some are placed in lockdown or protective custody; others are viewed as vulnerable to inmate harassment due a more passive-aggressive nature and an inability to “hold their own” among the more hardened criminal element. Arsonists who are imprisoned tend to be teased by other inmates, offered materials for setting fires, and urged to do so.
Prison personnel report that arsonists are more visual in their dreams than other inmates. For instance, they tend to dream in vivid colors (oranges, reds, yellows), often about sunsets and sunrises rather than social settings and interactions with other people. The passive-aggressive behavior prevalent among adult arsonists compared with other types of criminals has been observed among juveniles as well.
In summary, arson in America is a serious and in many ways unique crime. One of its distinguishing characteristics is the youthfulness of the offenders. More than half the crimes of arson in the United States are committed by those under the age of 18, falling within a range of identifiable types and motivations. Intervention has been shown to help younger children who play with matches keep from becoming chronically delinquent or more severely disturbed high-risk teenagers, and to prevent juvenile firesetters from “graduating” to adult arson and a life behind bars. As awareness and understanding have increased, more innovative and effective programs have been devised.
- Adler, Freda, Gerhard O.W. Mueller, and William S. Laufer. Criminology, 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
- Barnett, W., P. Richter, D. Sigmund, and M. Spitzer. “Recidivism and Concomitant Criminality in Pathological Firesetters.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 42 (1997): 879–83.
- Barnett, W., P. Richter, D. Sigmund, and M. Spitzer. “Crime in the United States, 2001.” Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, 2001.
- Fineman, Kenneth. “A Model for the Qualitative Analysis of Child and Adult Fire Deviant Behavior.” American Journal of Forensic Psychology 13 (1995): 31–59.
- Gaynor, Jessica, ed. Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Handbook. Washington, DC: U.S. Fire Administration Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2000.
- Goudsblom, Johan. Fire and Civilization. London: Penguin Books, 1994.
- Grolnick, W.S., R.E. Cole, L. Laurentis, and P. Schwartzman. “Playing with Fire: A Developmental Assessment of Children’s Fire Understanding and Experience.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 19 (1963): 126–35.
- Hanson, M., S. Mackay-Soroka, S. Stanley, and L. Poulton. “Delinquent Firesetters: A Comparative Study of Delinquency and Firesetting Histories.” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 401 (1994): 299–303.
- Jackson, Howard F., Susan Hope, and Clive Glass. “Why Are Arsonists Not Violent Offenders?” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 31 (1987): 143–51.
- Jackson, Patrick G. “Assessing the Validity of Official Data on Arson.” Criminology 26 (1988): 181–95.
- Kolko, David J., ed. Handbook on Firesetting in Children and Youth. New York: Academic Press, 2002.
- Prins, Herschel. “Arson: A Review of the Psychiatric Literature.” British Journal of Criminology 36 (1996): 162–63.
- E., and M. Virkkunen. “Young Arsonists: History of Conduct Disorder, Psychiatric Diagnoses and Criminal Recidivism.” The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry 8 (1997): 311–20.
- Siegel, Larry J. Criminology. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003.
- Wax, D., and V. Haddox. “Enuresis, Firesetting, and Animal Cruelty in Male Adolescent Delinquents: A Triad Predictive of Violent Behavior.” Journal of Psychiatry and Law 2: 45–71.
- Webb, N.B., G. Sakheim, L. Towns-Miranda, and C. Wagner. “Collaborative Treatment of Juvenile Firesetters: Assessment and Outreach.” Journal of Orthopsychiatry 60 (1990): 305–10.
- Wooden, Wayne S. “Firestarters: Why Are Middle-Class Children Setting Their Worlds on Fire?” Psychology Today (January 1985): 23–28.
- Wooden, Wayne S. “Juvenile-Firesetters in Cross-Cultural Perspective: How Should Society Respond?” In Official Responses to Problem Juveniles: Some International Reflections, ed. Jim Hackler. Onati, Spain: Onati Publications, 1991.
- Wooden, Wayne S., and Martha Lou Berkey. Children and Arson: America’s Middle-Class Nightmare. New York: Plenum Press, 1984.