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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Felony Cruelty Laws in 49 States and Counting

This week, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed Senate Bill 2211 into law, making North Dakota the 49th state in the nation to establish some felony-level penalties for malicious acts of animal cruelty. It was a long time coming, and a follow up to last year’s Measure 5 campaign, which put the issue of animal cruelty on the public agenda and spurred action by state lawmakers.

Every major newspaper in the state called on legislators to honor their word to voters and get the job done, or else prepare for another ballot initiative in 2014. The bill was watered down by the North Dakota Farm Bureau and other agribusiness interests during the legislative process, and fell short of the comprehensive reform that was promised to voters, but it’s a major step forward and is cause for celebration.

PuppyNow, only one state in the nation remains without any felony law for even the most vicious and intentional acts of cruelty: South Dakota. In the broader sense, it has been a tremendous march of progress over the last three decades, as animal advocates across the country have worked to upgrade and fortify the state anti-cruelty statutes, and have completely reshaped the legal framework on crimes against animals.

Prior to 1986, only four states (Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and Rhode Island) had felony provisions for animal cruelty. Since then, 45 states have taken action to enact felony penalties for malicious acts of cruelty—an average of five new states every three years. In the last decade alone, eleven states have moved from the misdemeanor to felony category—Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming (2003), Kansas (2006), Hawaii (2007), Alaska and Utah (2008), Arkansas (2009), Mississippi (2010), Idaho (2012) and North Dakota (2013).

Research indicates that people who abuse and kill animals are more likely to similarly abuse humans, and animal cruelty is a known predictor and indicator of other violent crimes. Studies have found that there was animal abuse in 88 percent of families who were under state supervision due to the physical abuse of their children, and a U.S. Department of Justice study beginning in 1987 found that animal abuse predicted which children would exhibit anti-social and aggressive behavior later in childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood. Passage of felony-level animal cruelty laws is a critical initial step in halting the progression of violent crime before it escalates.

Now that all but one state have felony cruelty laws, our movement must focus on South Dakota, which has become an outlier because of its weak penalties for malicious cruelty. And now that stronger laws are on the books in so many states, we must focus on training programs for police, sheriffs, and prosecutors on effective investigation, case-building, and prosecution of animal cruelty, to make sure the statutes are properly utilized and adequately enforced.

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