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Arson (From Different Crimes Different Criminals: Understanding, Treating and Preventing Criminal Behavior, P 231-255, 2006, Doris Layton MacKenzie, Lauren O’Neill, et al. eds. -- See NCJ-217024)

NCJ Number
Sara Betsinger
Date Published
25 pages
This article explores the crime of arson, with a focus on offender characteristics and motives.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines arson 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, personal property of another, etc.” Research indicates that 25 percent of fires in the United States are arson-related. The characteristics and motives of arson offenders have been difficult for researchers to pinpoint because they vary widely, but a few arsonist categories are generally agreed upon. The most widely used category scheme divides arsonists into different groups based on motive: (1) vandalizing arsonists; (2) excitement arsonists; (3) revenge arsonists; (4) those committing arson to conceal other crimes; (5) profit-motivated arsonists; and (6) extremists. Each type of arsonist is described before the author considers the major theoretical perspectives that have attempted to explain the crime of arson, which include biological and psychological explanations as well as social learning approaches. Biological and psychological perspectives focus on psychological disorders, although in recent years researchers have turned more toward social learning theories that explain arson in terms of the environmental and individual characteristics that may influence an arsonists’ behavior. Research on treatment for arsonists has been sorely lacking. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) takes a prevention approach in which children who engage in fire setting behavior are assessed for individual risks and needs, such as problems in school or insufficient parental supervision. Community prevention programs typically focus on fire safety education, although this approach has not been evaluated for its effectiveness in preventing arson. Other approaches have focused on treating juvenile arson offenders with combinations of therapy, social or psychological skills training, and safety skills education. Future research should focus on improving our knowledge of arsonists so that effective treatment and prevention programming can be developed. Notes, references


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