Advocates have fought a long battle to ensure that dogs victimized in the depraved practice of dog fighting get some justice. That justice took a big step forward as the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted to strengthen federal sentencing guidelines for animal fighting, including enhancements that specify tougher penalties for extreme offences.
Now judges have the tools they need to let the penalty better fit the crime.
Change has been a long time coming, considering that Congress acknowledged the depravity of dog fighting back in 2008 and increased the maximum penalty for participation from three to five years. Just a few years later Congress strengthened animal fighting statutes again by making attending an animal fight a federal offense that carried additional penalties if a child was brought to the event. But the federal sentencing guidelines were not updated to reflect these increased penalties, so there remained a discrepancy between what is allowed under federal law and what is expressed by the sentencing guidelines.
A typical prison sentence for convicted dog fighters has averaged six months, and most of the offenders received probation. Under the new USSC guidelines, the recommended sentencing range for animal fighting increases by 250% to a minimum range of 21-27 months of jail time.
Senior vice president of ASPCA for Government Relations Nancy Perry says that “until now the guidelines did not reflect the seriousness with which Congress, law enforcement and the public view this barbaric activity.”
The new guideline changes were proposed by USSC in January, and allowed for public comments on the issue to be made through March. The ASPCA coordinated a public awareness campaign with the hashtag #GetTough, and the USSC was able to collect a record-breaking 50,000 comments – the most ever on a single issue.
Victims in dog fighting operations are often bred, tortured and killed for profit. The dogs are forced to fight each other, sometimes until death, or used as bait to encourage more aggression. Thanks to the changes that have come about through Congressional action on the Animal Welfare Act, the USSC research and analysis, and those 50,000+ citizen letters, the violent criminals behind this practice will be behind bars for a longer period of time.
The new guidelines go a long way toward protecting the dogs forced to fight and suffer each year purely for the entertainment value and financial gain of those who participate in this vicious activity. Even with dog fighting being a felony in every state and the District of Columbia, the activity continues in every type of community. In just the past week, the ASPCA has assisted local, state and federal agencies in four dog fighting cases covering five states and 17 crime scenes, resulting in the seizure of over 250 dogs.
In February Congress introduced the Helping Extract Animals from Red Tape (HEART) Act (H.R.4613) as federal legislation that will enable judges to require owners of animals seized in federal dog fighting cases to be responsible for the cost of care for the animals. This legislation should speed up the court process to allow the animals to be rehabilitated and more quickly adopted into loving homes.
The ASPCA and many other animal advocacy groups and individuals have vowed to continue the fight until the heinous practice of dog fighting no longer exists in a civilized society. Until that happy day arrives these new guidelines are a positive step toward assuring that if you do the crime, you will do hard jail time.