Arson accounted for more than $2 billion of property losses in the U.S. last year, double that in 1975, according to Bronx (N.Y.) District Attorney Mario Merola in testimony before a Senate panel on the subject.
Another witness before the Inter-governmental Affairs Subcommittee recently told the senators that "deliberate torching of homes, automobiles and other property has reached epidemic proportions in our urban area." James E. Jones Jr. of the Alliance of American Insurers, said his organization estimates that more money is lost due to arson than to burglary and auto theft combined each year.
The subcommittee hearings are aimed at exploring ways to resolve the growing problems arson caused the nation and communities.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) told the gathering he wants to remove the air of "white-collar respecttability" from the "growing criminal menace of arson-for-profit."
Claiming that professional arsonists, known as "torches," are "said to earn over $300,000 per year," Glenn called for a coordinated local, state and federal effort to deal with the problem.
He said the "crime of arson is directly related to many of the specific economic problems in housing, employment and services that out cities face today."
New York's Merola said his prosecutorial efforts on arson have resuited in felony convictions of "a paltry few hundred" since 1974. During that time, he pointed out, there were about 20,000 "suspicious" fires in the Bronx alone.
He siad many of the fires are the result of the financial implications to the owner, who often is seeking insurance money, or the chance of a landlord to end rent control on his properties, or the possibility of federal rehabilitation money.
He called for legislation regulating insurance company payments for suspicious fires. He said the insurance companies have "abrogated their responsibility" and could help eliminate the "burn-for-profit" motive.
Jones outlined sophisticated schemes aimed at artificially inflating the value of buildings through bogus transactions, and then burning the buildings for insurance money.
Jones called for increased federal involvement in fire prevention and an upgrading in the FBI crime classification for fire from a Part II crime.