Firesetting Reoffending: A Meta-Analysis

Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 11, November 2021, 1634 –1651.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
A Meta-Analysis
University of Kent
Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust
University of Saskatchewan
University of Derby
University of Kent
Despite the significant adverse consequences of deliberate firesetting, it has been unclear what proportion of individuals
repeat this problematic behavior, owing to methodological differences and large variability in reported reoffending rates. A
meta-analysis of 25 samples of untreated adults and children with a history of firesetting, examining reoffending over a fol-
low-up period, was conducted. The base rates of reoffending from this meta-analysis indicated that between 57% and 66%
of untreated firesetters engage in general reoffending, between 8% and 10% engage in criminal arson, and around 20%
engage in deliberate firesetting behavior. The odds of firesetting during the follow-up period were 5 times greater for known
firesetters in comparison with other offenders. Clinical and criminological correlates of reoffending, including age, are exam-
ined. Implications for enabling evidence-based practice with this population, including defensible risk assessments and treat-
ment provision, are discussed.
Keywords: recidivism; risk assessment; meta-analysis; criminal behavior; juvenile; mental illness
Deliberate firesetting, including legally recorded arson, is highly problematic. In
England, nearly half of the fires responded to by fire and rescue services are classified
as deliberate (Arson Prevention Forum, 2017), with the total number of deliberate fires in
2018–2019 reaching 83,236 (Home Office, 2019a). Some of these incidents had a consider-
able impact on public health and safety as they resulted in 1,014 injuries and 51 fatalities
(Home Office, 2019b). However, this is not an issue unique to England or the United
Kingdom; deliberate firesetting is now an international public health concern (Tyler,
Gannon, et al., 2019).
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Katie Sambrooks, Centre
of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology, School of Psychology, Keynes College, University of Kent,
Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NP, UK; e-mail:
1013577CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211013577CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIORSambrooks et al. / Firesetting Reoffending: A Meta-Analysis
Despite the pervasiveness and substantial adverse consequences, deliberate firesetting
remains under-researched (Sambrooks & Tyler, 2019). Consequently, the probability of
reoffending is poorly understood (Ducat et al., 2015). Early literature often portrayed fire-
setters as dangerous, with a high likelihood of reoffending (Brett, 2004; Thomson et al.,
2018). However, more recent narrative reviews have demonstrated a large variation in reof-
fending rates. For example, Kennedy et al. (2006) considered eight studies examining repeat
firesetting among children and found rates ranging from 1% to 72%. Similarly, across seven
studies, Lambie and Randell (2011) found that between 26% and 50% of children set fur-
ther fires. Finally, Brett (2004) examined 24 studies and reported reoffending from 4% to
60%. This substantial variability is likely due to the vast methodological differences across
studies. These reviews also include retrospective frequency counts of onetime versus repeat
firesetters and conflate untreated and treated reoffending rates, limiting their clinical utility.
This is a significant issue because a clear base rate of firesetting reoffending is essential for
making defensible risk decisions (Gannon & Pina, 2010; Watt & Ong, 2015).
How firesetting reoffending is operationalized across studies differs greatly, with sources
of reoffending information ranging from official convictions to informal sources. This may
have a large impact on reoffending rates as the numbers of self-reported firesetting inci-
dents often significantly exceed official figures (e.g., Gannon et al., 2013). Rice and Harris
(1996) determined that a reoffense with fire occurred if there was a further criminal charge
for firesetting (inclusive of arson), or if institutional records indicated behavior that would
have resulted in a criminal charge. This prospective study of adult male mentally disordered
firesetters, who were followed up after an average of 7.8 years, found that 16% reoffended
using fire. In contrast, Ducat and colleagues (2015) used only criminal charges as their
source of reoffending information. They found that, during a follow-up of between 2.5 and
11 years, 5% of adults and children, identified through court records, reoffended with fire.
In an examination of adult reoffending upon release from a medium secure unit, Hollin
et al. (2013) found an arson reoffending rate of 11% over an average of 10 years, using only
conviction data. Sapsford et al. (1978) found an even lower arson reconviction rate (5%)
over a 1- to 5-year follow-up of adults who had been imprisoned for arson. Similarly,
Edwards and Grace (2014) found a 6% rate of firesetting reoffending over 10 years when
using arson conviction and detainment data in a large sample of children and adults. Notably,
this sample was identified through criminal charges and did not include mental disorder
disposals. Mental health might increase firesetting reoffending, given the differences in
rates reported for psychiatric settings relative to nonpsychiatric settings (i.e., 11%–16% for
psychiatric settings, Hollin et al., 2013; Rice & Harris, 1996; 5%–6% for criminal justice
settings, Ducat et al., 2015; Edwards & Grace, 2014). However, this is difficult to conclu-
sively determine, owing to high rates of mental illness across nonpsychiatric correctional
settings (Tyler, Miles, et al., 2019).
Some studies consider reoffending to have occurred only if the individual engages in
another offense involving fire (e.g., Franklin et al., 2002; Geller et al., 1992), whereas others
use any criminal offense (e.g., Barnett et al., 1997; DeJong et al., 1992; Repo et al., 1997).
Other research considers both or various types of reoffense (e.g., Edwards & Grace, 2014;

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