A Senate panel agreed Thursday on the narrowest of margins to boost the criminal penalty on those who purposely and knowingly abuse and kill family pets.
The 4-3 vote by the Senate Commerce Committee came despite concerns of several lawmakers about simply filling the prisons with more people who may instead be better served with counseling and rehabilitation.
“We have to address a much deeper rooted issue before beginning to add additional felony counts on individuals,” said Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix. And while Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said abusers should be punished, he 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 are missing the measure’s point. She said that the change actually 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 pointed out that judges have the discretion to designate these offenses as misdemeanors.
And what that is likely to mean is a sentence of unsupervised probation, she told lawmakers.
HB2671 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 1.5 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 a 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. Only the worst cases, Miller said, make the news.
Baker said the problems extend beyond specific incidents.
“We know that animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes than non-abusers,” she said.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who has been trying for years to boost the penalty for this kind of abuse, said breaking that pattern of violence is crucial with probation and intensive supervision.
“I think these people need a lot of additional supervision,” he said.
Prior efforts have been stymied over concerns from the agriculture community that creating a new felony for this kind of abuse might spill over and be used against farmers and ranchers. Kavanagh said the language should assuage those fears, given the specific definition of what does – and does not – constitute a pet.
Even with that, the measure faces an uncertain future. It now goes to the full Senate and then needs to be approved by the House, which has yet to consider the issue.