Arson is the willful or malicious burning of property, and arson fires also entail the risk of intentional or inadvertent personal injury, including risk to firefighters. In the United States, at least 20 percent (and as much as 50 percent) of fire-related property damage is due to arson. This proportion has been declining due, at least in part, to increased vigilance and investigation.
Considerable scientific knowledge now supports forensic fire investigation, including determination that the cause was arson. Nevertheless, conviction rates for arson are extremely low (2 percent to 3 percent), and about 80 percent of arson cases remain unsolved. Although profit is probably the most common motive for arson, little is known about its perpetrators because of their low likelihood of apprehension. Most of the academic literature has focused on juveniles and mentally disordered firesetters whose actions had little to do with monetary gain. Vandalism is the most common motive among juveniles, whereas among adults apprehended for arson, the leading motives are revenge, anger, and excitement, with fraud accounting for less than 10 percent. The overwhelming majority of apprehended firesetters are male, and at least half are juveniles.
Psychodynamic perspectives dominated the early professional literature on mentally disordered firesetters and declared that pyromania (the recurrent inability to resist impulses to set fires) was a specific disorder responsible for the majority of fires not set for monetary gain. Pyromania was believed to have a sexual root, and clinicians’ writings frequently noted the triad of firesetting, cruelty to animals, and enuresis. More recently, empirical approaches to mentally disordered firesetters show that pyromania, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is extremely rare. Moreover, although mentally disordered adult firesetters frequently set fires as children, little evidence exists that enuresis or cruelty to animals is especially related to adult firesetting.
Compared with other mentally disordered offenders, firesetters are younger, less intelligent, more socially isolated, less assertive, and less physically attractive. Although mentally disordered firesetters have a slightly lower risk of violent recidivism than other mentally disordered offenders, the available research suggests that approximately one third committed subsequent violent offenses over an 8-year period, while another third committed only nonviolent offenses. Although treatments designed to improve assertion and social competence show promise, no convincing evidence yet exists that any therapies reduce arsonists’ criminal, specifically firesetting, recidivism.
- Faigman, David L., David H. Kaye, Michael J. Saks, and Joseph Sanders. 2005. “Fires, Arsons, and Explosions.” Pp. 657-728 in Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony, vol. 4, 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.
- Geller, J. L. (1992). “Arson in Review: From Profit to Pathology.” Clinical Forensic Psychiatry 15:623-45.
- Quinsey, Vernon L., Grant T. Harris, Marnie E. Rice, and Catherine A. Cormier. 2006. “Fire Setters.” Pp. 115-29 in Violent Offenders: Appraising and Managing Risk. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Rice, Marnie E. and Grant T. Harris. 1996. “Predicting the Recidivism of Mentally Disordered Firesetters.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 11:351-63.
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