Australian Arsonists: A Typology, Offending and Sentencing Trends, and Theoretical Adjustments for an Indigenous Cultural Context.

  • Therese Ellis-Smith

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The cost of arson worldwide is estimated to be approximately 1 percent of global gross domestic product per annum (The Geneva Association, 2014). Other estimates have put the annual economic impact of deliberate fire setting in the United Kingdom at B£2.3 (Department for Communities & Local Government, 2011a), and in the United States at B$1.3 (Evarts, 2012). In Australia, the cost of arson was estimated in 2008 to be B$1.6 annually (Rollings, 2008), and more recent estimates have increased this considerably to B$2.3, to account for fire, ambulance and volunteer service costs (Smith, Jorna, Sweeney, & Fuller, 2014).
Research on arsonists, largely based on international samples, suggests that individuals who have been convicted of deliberately setting fires are often single males who have experienced problems in school. They are also prone to have been diagnosed with a mental illness, have a substance abuse history and demonstrate versatility in their offending. Given the estimated cost of arson it is surprising there have not been more Australian studies focused on the characteristics of arsonists.
A review of the international arson literature highlighted several key gaps by comparison with the Australian literature. Specifically, research has not considered illegal firesetting by Indigenous peoples, despite Indigenous people accounting for a large proportion of all Australian offenders. There is an absence of analyses of trends in arson offending over time, such that any changes in the circumstances of arson offences or the characteristics of arsonists, cannot be determined. No clear typology categorizing Australian arsonists has been identified to enable comparisons with international typologies. Lastly, little is known about the sentencing considerations of the Australian judiciary, or whether Judges have similar views on the key aggravating and mitigating factors to be considered.
To address these research gaps, the current thesis commenced with interviews of 33 offenders convicted of arson. Key themes were identified that distinguished the behaviour of Indigenous and non-Indigenous arsonists. Extrinsic motivations for firesetting were found in the former group, and several offence features such as the use of accelerants and use of substances while offending divided the two groups. Theoretical approaches such as the Multi-Trajectory Theory of Adult Firesetting (M-TTAF) developed by Gannon, Ó Ciardha, Doley, and Alleyne (2012) and Indigenous conceptualizations such as social and emotional well-being (Gee, Dudgeon, Schultz, Hart, & Kelly, 2014) and standpoint theory (Moreton-Robinson, 2004; Nakata, 2007b) were reviewed. Theoretical adjustments based on a thematic analysis of interviews, and a synthesis of current theory and Indigenous conceptualizations, are discussed, with recommendations for greater cultural inclusiveness for the Indigenous group.
The aim of the second study was to review sentencing transcripts from all Australian jurisdictions between 1990 and 2015, to identify trends in the features of arson offending, and key characteristics of arsonists, over this period. Trend analyses indicated substance use, mental illness and female gender to be increasingly referred to in sentencing transcripts as significant factors in the commission of arson offences over time. A typology of Australian arsonists was developed using cluster analysis incorporating the expressive-instrumental motivations developed by Canter and Fritzon (1998). Differences in the planning of the offence, the use of accelerants, the motivation for the arson, and the sentence granted were highlighted, between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups.
The final study explored judicial sentencing considerations over a 25-year period identifying aggravating and mitigating factors referenced in historical transcripts. These were compared to current judicial considerations obtained from a sample of serving members of the Australian judiciary, to identify potential changes over time. Considerable inconsistencies were identified in comparisons across jurisdictions and court levels suggesting Australia lacks a unified approach to arson sentencing.
This program of research extended arson theory with specific reference to Indigenous arsonists, provided an analysis of arson offending in Australia over 25 years pointing to a typology, projected future trends in arson, and explored the sentencing considerations of courts in this country. Implications for theory, for clinical practice, and for the court system are discussed.
Date of Award13 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorBruce Watt (Supervisor) & Katarina Fritzon (Supervisor)

Cite this

Australian Arsonists: A Typology, Offending and Sentencing Trends, and Theoretical Adjustments for an Indigenous Cultural Context.
Ellis-Smith, T. (Author). 13 Jun 2020

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis