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Arizona Republic: Should People Who Torture Animals Get a Misdemeanor Penalty?

Written by: Kimberly Ring

News Highlights:

  • HB2671 passed with a close 4-3 vote and advances to the full Senate.
  • HB2671 is a bill that would strengthen penalties for heinous pet abuse.
  • When the full Senate vote is scheduled, we will ask our supporters to hep ensure we are successful!

Arizona Republic

Should people who torture animals get a misdemeanor penalty? It happens in Arizona.
[caption id="attachment_54711" align="alignleft" width="180"] Photo: Thinkstock[/caption] There was the college student who nearly beat his golden retriever to death with a metal rod. There was the boyfriend who decapitated his girlfriend's puppy after she spoke to another man. There was the family whose dog was found emaciated, dehydrated and too weak to drink from its bucket outside. "Every day, our emergency team and our medical technicians see heinous acts of crimes against animals," said Tracey Miller, field operations manager for the Arizona Humane Society. "In 2018 alone, we responded to over 7,400 calls." Yet, only the most extreme cases are prosecuted. And even then, the way Arizona classifies animal-cruelty crimes means the worst offenders frequently are convicted of misdemeanors, not felonies. Animal-rights advocates, including Miller, are again asking the Legislature to change that. For the past few years, they've pushed to increase the penalty "cruel mistreatment" of pets — defined as severe abuse, torture or drawn-out killing — from a Class 6 felony to a Class 5 felony. Courts cannot reduce a Class 5 felony charge to a misdemeanor. Class 5 convictions also carry higher baseline sentences and typically include supervised probation. Advocates argue the change would even the playing field for domestic animals, as illegally killing livestock is already a Class 5. "This bill is your opportunity to make Arizona a safer place for people and for pets," Miller said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week, where lawmakers voted 4-3 to advance the amended House Bill 2671 to the Senate floor. Prosecutors: Current penalties fall short Rebecca Baker, legislative liaison for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said that while severe cases of animal cruelty are relatively rare, prosecutors have seen "an escalation of violence" in such cases in recent years. "Time and time again, we are prosecuting incidents of people stomping, shooting, stabbing, burning animals to their death," she said. "The current penalty in place is not adequate to address the harm done to pets or the loss suffered by animal owners, as well as the threat that these specific offenders pose to our community." Several law-enforcement and animal-welfare agencies cite animal cruelty as a strong predictor of domestic violence, child abuse and other violent crimes. Getting animal abusers on supervised probation, something rarely ordered in a misdemeanor case, is crucial in order to intervene before they become more violent, Baker said. Bill sponsor Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, also cited "much better opportunities for probation an intensive supervision at the higher charge level" when he testified before the Commerce Committee.
Kavanagh's initial proposal had stalled earlier this session but was revived through a procedural move last week. "The severity of the offense must be proportional to the harm done, and people who are torturing animals are doing extreme harm," he said. "The probation can also include, hopefully does include, some sort of a medical or psychological treatment if the person is not just vicious and nasty but in fact is disturbed." Would more punishment undermine reform? The Arizona Cattlemen's Association had opposed the legislation last year, contending it could have unintended consequences in cases where someone killed a dog in self-defense or because it was trying to hurt livestock. Some Democratic lawmakers also worried that upping the penalty for animal cruelty would contribute to a different problem the state was trying to fix — its incarceration rate, the fourth-highest in the nation — and voted against it. This year's "narrowly tailored" bill appears to have satisfied the agriculture community. But concerns about stacking penalties on offenders who need rehabilitation or mental-health treatment persist. Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said at the hearing that lawmakers have "talked a lot in the last couple years about judicial reform and how … we're making people felons for the rest of their life." "Sometimes, it's justifiable, but I question how effective our prisons are, how many people are returning to prison over and over again. So, I have a hard time increasing penalties." Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said officials "have to address a much more deeper-rooted issue before beginning to add additional felony counts on individuals." Other lawmakers argued justice-reform efforts should focus on non-violent offenders, and offenders in extreme animal-abuse cases are violent. Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R- Scottsdale, also stressed that under the legislation, a person would have to "have intentionally, knowingly subjected an animal to cruel neglect." "This is not going to capture people who accidentally kick the dog," she said. "These are very serious, violent crimes, and I think that making sure that the penalty reflects the serious nature of this kind of crime is appropriate."