Loss of sentimental photographs and other data on handsets and other devices will be an aggravating factor when thieves are sentenced
Thieves who steal mobile telephones containing irreplaceable family photographs or precious messages will face tougher punishments under official new guidelines.
The Sentencing Council said phones and other electronic devices would fall within new measures to increase sentences for crimes causing “emotional harm”.
Thieves will get longer jail terms or other sentences if they are convicted of taking belongings with “substantial value to the loser regardless of monetary worth”, the new rules say.
It could include text messages or other electronic communications from a deceased relative, for example.
“If a phone that is stolen contains irreplaceable sentimental data then that would be part of it,” said a spokesman for the Sentencing Council, which advises magistrates and judges on how offenders should be penalised.
“It does not matter whether the item has financial value – it is the impact on the victim that will have an influence on the case.”
Although the guidelines do not set out specific increases in sentences, a crime which causes a victim emotional trauma will be handed a more severe penalty when the new rules come into force in February.
Georgina Dormer, 73, from Brighton, said she welcomed the development after a mobile phone containing the only recordings of her late husband’s voice were stolen in 2013.
“Michael had a lovely speaking voice and I used to dial his number to hear his voicemail message,” she said.
“It was such a shock when it was stolen, just five days after he died, and it really set me back.”
The phone, and a laptop containing precious photos, were never recovered and the voicemail message was deleted automatically a few months after the theft.
“I think it’s a jolly good idea to punish these thefts more severely because of the heartache they put people through,” said Mrs Dormer.
There were 742,000 victims of mobile phone theft in England and Wales during 2012 and 2013, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, or more than 2,000 a day.
Apple’s iPhone was by far the most likely model to be stolen, accounting for more than 50 per cent.
Consumers told researchers in 2011 that they valued the data on their ‘phones at more than £700 and regarded it as more valuable than the device itself.
The new sentencing guidelines covered all types of theft and also set out for the first time how criminals will face harsher punishment if they target historic objects or buildings.
This category could include damage to war memorials or theft of objects from a historic shipwrecks.
Mark Harrison, national policing and crime adviser for Historic England said: “The impact of theft on our historic sites and buildings has far-reaching consequences over and above the financial cost of what has been stolen.
“When thieves steal metal from heritage assets, such as listed churches, artefacts from the ground or historic stonework from an ancient castle, they are stealing from all of us and damaging something which is often irreplaceable.”
The guidelines will cover sentences for all thefts in England and Wales which last year numbered more than 91,000.
Jill Gramann, a magistrate and member of the Sentencing Council, said: “The new guidelines will help judges and magistrates deal with this great variety of offences while ensuring that the harm caused to the victim is central to the sentencing decision.
“Thefts are committed for financial gain, but can mean much more than financial loss to the victim and we want to ensure sentences take this into account.”