By Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — A Senate panel narrowly agreed Thursday to boost the criminal penalty on those who purposely and knowingly abuse and kill family pets.
The 4-3 vote by the Commerce Committee came despite the concerns of several lawmakers about simply filling the prisons with more people who may instead be better served with counseling and rehabilitation. The measure faces an uncertain future. It now goes to the full Senate and then needs to be approved by the House, which has not considered the issue.
“We have to address a much more deeper-rooted issue before beginning to add additional felony counts on individuals,” said Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix. And Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, while saying abusers should be punished, wants to look at treatment instead of “making people felons for the rest of their lives.”
But Rebecca Baker with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said foes were missing the point of the measure. And she said the change could force people to get the help they need — or at least the supervision of their conduct.
The issue arises because current law makes animal cruelty a Class 6 felony. While that technically could land someone in state prison for a year, Baker said judges have the discretion to designate the offense a misdemeanor.
And what that’s likely to mean, she told lawmakers, is a sentence of unsupervised probation.
HB 2671 would make it a Class 5 felony to intentionally or knowingly subject a pet to cruel mistreatment or to kill a pet without the consent of the owner.
On paper, the sentencing is not much different, with a presumptive term of 1½ years. But the key, said Baker, is it can’t be designated a misdemeanor.
“A felony conviction for these offenders is crucial because misdemeanor offenders can’t be placed on supervised probation,” she said. “Getting these offenders on supervised probation is an important step to assessing what interventions are necessary and needed to prevent recidivism.”
Baker also stressed that prosecution for this crime would be reserved for the worst of the worst.
“We are prosecuting incidents of people stomping, shooting, stabbing, burning animals to their death,” she told lawmakers.
And Tracey Miller, field operations manager for the Arizona Humane Society, agreed.
“Every day our medical teams and emergency medical conditions see heinous acts of crimes against animals,” with more than 7,400 calls about animal cruelty last year, Miller said.
But Baker said the problems extend beyond the specific incidents.
“We know that animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes than non-abusers,” she said.