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Vulnerable Victims: Increasing Animal Cruelty Sentences to Reflect Society’s Understanding of the Value of Animal Lives

When Michael Vick pleaded guilty to masterminding a dogfighting operation that resulted in the intentional killing of six to eight dogs—some by hanging or drowning—he was sentenced to only twenty-three months imprisonment.  Alarmingly, Vick’s sentence was among the harshest imposed at the federal level for animal cruelty offenses that routinely involve the torture, maiming, and murder of defenseless canines.  Even in cases of extraordinary cruelty where animals have been starved, beaten, and electrocuted, courts have imposed sentences measured in months, not years.  In one case, a defendant received two-years probation despite abandoning nine dogs—four of whom were found in a sealed storage container—that later died.  The court’s sentence was based, in part, on its conclusion that animal cruelty is a “victimless” crime.  Such sentences show little, if any, regard for the value of these animals’ lives and the prolonged suffering they endured.

Additionally, by recommending a sentence of zero-to-six months imprisonment for animal cruelty offenses, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines do not appreciate the depravity of this conduct or provide adequate deterrence.  Even in cases involving extreme cruelty, the maximum sentence that can be imposed pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 49 is five years imprisonment.  These sentences are far too lenient and fail to recognize that animals are among society’s most vulnerable victims.

In United States v. Hargrove, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina took a step in the right direction by departing from the probation officer’s recommended sentence of ten-to-sixteen months and imposing the five-year statutory maximum.  Courts should continue to impose harsher sentences and the Guidelines, as well as 18 U.S.C. § 49, should provide for periods of incarceration that no longer pale in comparison to those where the victim is a human being.  In so doing, animals will receive the heightened legal and constitutional protection they deserve.

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