Senate Bill 1604 proposes increasing the penalty for cruelty to animals to a felony. This bill could be a small win for animals and animal lovers alike.

Current law requires that the dog or cat die as a direct result of torture, inhumane injury or pain, before the violation can be charged as a Class 6 felony. Introduced by Virginia Beach Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph Jr. the bill unanimously passed the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, and was referred Jan. 17 to the finance committee.

Cruelty to animals is classified as a first class misdemeanor, which carries the same penalties as a Class 6 felony – fines up to $2,500 and up to 12 months in jail. Why then is this a big deal? Felonies will follow offenders.

They are required to disclose their charges on job or housing applications. Probation, parole and effects on constitutional rights might also be factors. The right to own a firearm and even the right to vote are impacted. In Virginia, a felony conviction results in the loss of the right to vote until the sentence is completed and the convict’s rights have been restored by the governor. There is also the social stigma that accompanies a felony conviction.

While the word felony alone could be a deterrent, there is still the legal process to contend with. Having the ability to charge, with a felony, someone beats, maims, mutilates or kills a dog or cat is a good and necessary step forward, but making those charges stick is still going to be a process. There is still a chance an offender can plead to a lesser charge, though Franklin County Animal Control Manager Cindy Brooks said she didn’t believe that would be the case very often here.

She also said there haven’t been many felony cases in Franklin County.

“I can’t say we don’t see it. We do, just not too often,” Brooks said, adding the calls local humane officers often address are about inadequate shelter or care of a companion animal. Virginia State Code Section 3.2-6503 summarizes the violation for that offense is a Class 4 misdemeanor, which is only punishable with a fine of up to $250.

According to the impact statement accompanying the proposed bill, court data for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 showed 422 misdemeanor convictions for cruelty to animals. In those cases, 21.6 percent of the suspects were sentenced to jail terms averaging one month, while the remaining 78.4 percent were not sentenced to jail time. It is not known how many of these offenses resulted in the death or euthanizing of the animal.

Either way, animal cruelty is an intolerable offense and it is about time the state steps up and examines the law to ensure due punishment for the crime. It would be nice to see tougher punishments for repeat offenders of animal neglect as well. Understandably, accidents happen, but if a person has had repeated visits by humane officers for inadequate care or neglect, harsher punishments could be warranted.

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