Is phone theft really worse than bag-snatching?

As mobile phone thefts increase dramatically, judges are coming down hard on perpetrators. But, asks Penny Lewis, do these tougher custodial sentences reflect the crime?
Click to follow

Visible street crime seems to be soaring out of control. While no one pretends there is a simple blueprint for eradicating crime, the "zero tolerance" policy towards petty as well as serious offences pursued by Rudolph Giuliani, the former Mayor, not only slashed crime figures in New York, but also restored public confidence. David Blunkett, the British Home Secretary, acknowledges that radical steps are needed to tackle an escalating problem here. More police officers, effective prosecution and tougher sentences were among those outlined in the criminal-justice business plan published by the Government last week.

The basic principle of sentencing is that it should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime; imprisonment is ordered only if there is no valid alternative. The subject was addressed in depth in John Halliday's report last year. Entitled Making Punishment Work, it cites an "unclear and unpredictable approach to persistent offenders" and states that sentences of less than 12 months "have little meaningful impact on criminal behaviour".

More recently, another Home Office report on mobile-phone theft confirms that this form of crime is markedly increasing. But is it singled out for especially harsh treatment because of its notoriety?

Last month, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, imposed robust custodial sentences in the Court of Appeal in three separate cases involving mobile-phone robbery. Those decisions are likely to set a precedent for analogous crimes; there is even a suggestion that custodial sentences could be imposed for first-time offenders. Jail terms varying from 18 months to four years could become the norm for non-violent crime – longer if the theft is accompanied by force. Approving Lord Woolf's decision, the Home Office noted: "The Government shares the concern of the Lord Chief Justice about the seriousness of mobile-phone robberies." It also encouraged manufacturers to "do what they can to make mobile phones less attractive to robbers by improving security features".

Phone theft is, at best, an inconvenience; at worst, it is a distressing experience. Handsets have little intrinsic value and are easily replaced. As a matter of contract, users are legally responsible for the cost of unauthorised calls made until they report the theft, but in genuine cases, networks may absorb such charges. John Cross, head of security at BT Cellnet, says many handsets are falsely reported as stolen and claims are often made for models superior to those lost. Nevertheless, he shares the Government's consumer-safety concerns. He says, "One offence of theft is one too many," and applauds Lord Woolf's stance, believing that "the emphasis should be on prevention."

Lord Woolf's intervention should perhaps be set against the backdrop of Home Office findings about mobile-phone crime. Jack Wraith, spokesman for the Mobile Industry Crime Action Forum, observes that the forum's research enabled the Government to assess the scale of phone-related offences. Micaf, an industry body representing mobile operators, manufacturers and specialists, has been in dialogue with the Home Office over this issue since Michael Howard was Home Secretary. The report was the first exercise in collating nationwide data on the incidence and characteristics of these offences. Information was gathered not only from police but also from inmates at Feltham Young Offenders Institute. The conclusions make sober reading: an estimated 470,000 thefts occurred in 2000, accounting for 5.5 per cent of all criminal incidents in the UK.

What caused particular alarm are the circumstances. The report's authors, Victoria Hannington and Pat Mayhew, make a brave stab at profiling typical offenders and victims. They discovered that thieves hunt in packs, are typically young adult males and are increasingly prone to violence. No allowance is made for a victim's age or sex.

The research also touches on whether the rising rate of street robberies is fuelled by mobile phones. But muggings took place before the proliferation of mobiles. The term "mugging" is just common parlance for street robbery with or without violence.

Commenting on the increasing prevalence of violent crimes in general, David Sonn, partner at the specialist criminal defence firm Sonn MacMillan, has noticed "a dramatic rise in these offences" and says that they are "quite properly being dealt with more severely by the courts." Those sentenced today are likely, in his opinion, to receive a longer term than they would have even six months ago. Deterrence and sentencing have long gone hand in glove: the theory is that the prospect of lengthy incarceration discourages some potential criminals.

In street crimes, the use or threat of violence determines the offence with which suspects are charged. Sonn points out that while theft and robbery are offences under the Theft Act 1968, "robbery is the more serious because of the ingredient of violence." The slightest use of force converts theft into robbery. Threats of force may be inferred from circumstances. Group attacks can be more intimidating than solo assaults, he says.

Age and form are other key factors. Youngsters are traditionally punished more leniently than adults, and custodial sentences are not imposed lightly. For a first-time theft offence, youths would probably escape prison. With robbery convictions, they can get from six months to three years, depending on aggravating features.

Sonn says that "in the current climate, custody will be the starting-point." Adults without previous form and with good mitigation could conceivably escape custody for petty theft, whether for mobile phones or handbags. Community punishment orders may be more appropriate. Habitual thieves are "in jeopardy of custody in any event" and may be given between 18 months' and three years' jail. Penalties for robbery include life imprisonment in heinous cases. In other instances, Sonn expects that sentences will be more severe than before.

Lord Woolf's intervention in the Court of Appeal cases has provoked speculation as to whether mobile-phone thieves will receive longer prison terms than bag-snatchers. Only a week after the Lord Chief Justice's case, Judge Valerie Pearlman imposed a three-and-a-half-year term on Adrian Lobban, who robbed his victim of a phone at knifepoint. Sonn is confident that courts "will disregard the hysteria and look clinically at the circumstances." His view is supported by no-nonsense sentences meted out by the Inner London Crown Court on 19 February to a trio of robbers who attacked a 52-year-old woman in her car. One defendant, who got a four-and-a-half-year prison term, had a previous mobile-phone conviction.

Attempts to highlight escalating violent crimes by imposing tougher sentences are understandable, but are they enough? The Home Office has committed an extra £20m to initiatives to tackle crime. Sonn believes that enhancing police resources and having more identification suites at police stations is essential, too. Delays of several weeks between arrests and identity parades can provide windows for seasoned thieves to reoffend.

The mobile-phone industry is lobbying hard for legislation to complement the measures taken by companies to combat crime. Mobiles consist of two separate elements: the SIM card and the handset. The former can be disabled by all operators, putting the handset out of action, if the IMEI (the International Mobile Equipment Identity) is known. However, there is concern that systems may be unblocked by changing the IMEI numbering with special equipment.

Vodafone UK, as part of a package announced on 8 February to reduce mobile-phone crime, has advocated a criminal offence for changing IMEIs. Gavin Darby, chief operating officer, confirms that he met recently with the Home Office minister John Denham Darby, stressing that the industry's security efforts "would be undermined unless legislation concerning tampering with the IMEI would be an offence. It is the final piece of the jigsaw."

John Cross of BT Cellnet believes that educating people about the risks is also important. In tandem with other industry players, BT Cellnet is looking at introducing programmes in schools to make children more aware of the risks.

Street crime, irrespective of violence, is unacceptable, and, while the phone industry can introduce new technology to respond to thefts after the event, the public would surely prefer to follow Giuliani's action plan, which has been demonstrated to reduce crime in the first place. Sentencing policy is an integral part of that process.