EVERY housebreaker caught in Edinburgh is set to face up to five years in jail under the first move of its kind in Scotland.
Prosecutors today unveiled the tough new approach which will see anyone snared by police after a break-in brought to court on a more serious indictment charge.
At present, two-thirds of those accused of a housebreaking are dealt with at summary level, which carries a maximum prison term of just 12 months.
Now anyone arrested for the offence over the next three months will be indicted at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, and could face a maximum five-year sentence.
The radical change is being piloted in the Capital to see if it reduces the number of break-ins in the city, and could lead to a roll-out across the country.
John Logue, Procurator Fiscal for the East of Scotland, said that the Crown Office hopes the availability of longer sentences would have the “double effect of deterrence and giving greater public reassurance”.
Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont today welcomed the move, adding that the authorities had previously “underestimated” the impact of break-ins on victims.
The upgraded punishments, which take effect from Monday, are being launched during the summer months when many residents are away on holiday, leaving homes unoccupied.
Mr Logue said: “We hope that longer potential sentences will be a deterrent although sentencing, of course, remains a matter for the court to decide.
“If the court thinks that a sentence of more than 12 months, which is the maximum in summary cases, is appropriate then a longer sentence will be available. This change will provide that option.
“Housebreaking is a traumatic experience for victims. The effect is not limited to the loss of high-value items or damage to property, but also includes the loss of sentimental items and, perhaps the most profound effect, the loss of security and safety for victims in their own home.
“As people leave their homes unattended for extended periods during the summer, this change will hopefully provide reassurance that an extra deterrent has been put in place. Anyone who does fall victim will know that the stronger sentencing options will be available for those responsible.
“It’s also the time when we have the Festival and many visitors staying here. We want this change to increase confidence in Edinburgh as a safe city.”
Under normal guidelines, Mr Logue said that accused may have been charged under indictment if they had a criminal record for housebreakings or similar offences.
Other aggravating factors may have been for high-value thefts, raids which showed high levels of preparation and planning, or break-ins where the occupant was home at the time.
Mr Logue said that more robust sentencing options were aimed at providing a deterrent, but it was “too early” to say whether they would be kept in place in the long term.
He added: “We can’t say at this stage if this will continue after August, or be brought in across the whole of Scotland. By trying this in Edinburgh we want to assess its impact before making decisions.
“The police have been hugely successful in targeting housebreakers and we have consulted them about this change. But this involves a change to prosecuting, not to policing.”
The most recent figures showed that housebreakings fell in Lothian and Borders between last April and February, dropping from 1563 during the previous 11-month period to 1321, a 15 per cent decrease.
Police have led a series of crackdowns on housebreaking in recent years, often targeting the relatively small number of serial offenders who are responsible for a massive volume of the crimes.
Mr Lamont said: ““This is a welcome move and I hope it can be expanded across the country. It’s crucial would-be thieves are warned that, if they do break in to someone’s property, the consequences they face will be extremely severe.
“For years the authorities in Scotland have underestimated the impact breaking in to someone’s home has on the victim.
“I’m glad it’s now starting to be taken seriously.”
Labour justice spokesman Lewis Macdonald said: “The jury is out until the pilot is completed, but I welcome the fact that they are testing this approach to see if it makes a difference.
“For too many people, housebreakings are an extremely distressing crime to suffer and people need to be confident that the Crown is doing everything possible to bring offenders to justice with meaningful and effective sentences.”
The new prosecution policy will run until August 30 when the results will be analysed to see whether it contributed to a drop in housebreakings and boosted public reassurance.
David Sinclair, from Victim Support Scotland, said: “We’re delighted that the Crown Office are taking a harder line against housebreakers who can now face potentially harsher punishments under this pilot scheme. In the past there has been a tendency to look at housebreaking as a less than serious crime and not taking into account the impact on victim’s, particularly elderly victims, who can end up prisoners in their home because they are afraid of being burgled again.”
Police chiefs have previously set up dedicated squads to target serial thieves thought to be responsible for the majority of break-ins.
Hit-lists of the worst offenders to be targeted were drawn up, along with detailed intelligence pictures built up for each suspect.
A large number of common stair flats, which allow thieves to target a number of flats in a single building after gaining entry, has been a factor in driving the city’s break-in rates.
Officers believe 80 per cent of housebreakers are subsidising addictions.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We support our prosecutors in using the full force of the law to bring criminals to justice.”