Friday, 21 February, 2020
As campaigners call for tougher sentencing for animal cruelty offenders, Samuel March offers another perspective, suggesting it may not be that simple.
“At the very moment in history when the animal protection movement is seeking out ever more draconian criminal justice reforms, mainstream culture appears poised to reform or abandon tough-on-crime policies” – Justin Marceau, Beyond Cages
The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill 2019-2020 is to be re-introduced as soon as parliamentary time available. Basically, it allows for a ten-fold increase in the maximum sentence (from six months to five years) for various animal cruelty offences in England and Wales.
The Bill has received cross-party support, so it’s almost certain to pass. It has the full support of the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Apparently 70% of people consulted are in favour of the longer sentences. There’s no denying it’s a popular move, but when it comes to animal law and criminal justice, popular policies are often wrongheaded.
1. The offence is totally arbitrary
Legal philosophers often argue for “principled criminalisation”, the notion that using the punitive institution of criminalisation to deter unwanted conduct is only warranted when it can be objectively justified. Especially when someone’s liberty at state, the law should be reasonable, rational and fair. It should apply equally to all unless there’s some objective reason to treat X differently from Y.
The enemy of fair laws are arbitrary laws. Most penal animal law is deeply arbitrary. One of the main animal cruelty offences in England and Wales is “causing unnecessary suffering” to domesticated animals. As you can probably imagine, the definition of “unnecessarily” is more than a tad disingenuous: it allows animals to be exploited, tortured and abused in all sorts of ways: piglets castrated without anaesthetic, calves removed from mums and “destroyed”, male chicks thrown into shredders…if you’re vegan you will know this all too well.
None of this suffering is, in fact, “necessary”. With more and more people going vegan and supplements and substitutes readily available, it’s clear most of us can live long (often longer), full and happy lives without causing this suffering. It is no more necessary to shred a male chick at birth than it is to rear it and make it cock-fight; ultimately it’s all just for human pleasure.
2. Carceral animal law policies allow for cognitive dissonance
The disingenuous definition of “unnecessary” defines cruelty only in terms of socially deviant behaviour. By pointing the finger at social outliers who rape dogs or beat cats; it comforts the 98% of people who pay daily for animals to be abused on their behalf: “you’re not the bad guys” it says, and politicians pat themselves on the back reassuring everyone incessantly that we’re “a nation of animal lovers.”
As such, the popularity of the move is no surprise. Almost no-one self identifies as an “animal abuser”; hence the success of myths such as “cruelty free” meat, “ethical” dairy or “free-range” eggs. People generally don’t like the idea of causing unnecessary suffering to animals, in fact they’ll go to great lengths to pretend they’re not the cause. These penal populist animal laws are just another myth people live by to see no evil, hear no evil, and pretend they do no evil. It’s time the scales fell from their eyes.
3. Longer sentences don’t reduce specific offending
The move is premised on an assumption: namely that longer sentences reduce crime, in particular by deterrence. It sounds like common sense but it’s been repeatedly debunked. Over and over again. Studies have shown not only that longer prison sentences have little to no effect on deterring crime, and may even increase re-offending. Spend any time in the criminal courts and you quickly learn that most clients don’t meticulously weigh up the pros, cons, risks and consequences of their every move.
One risk that does carry weight is when there is certainty of being caught. Unfortunately, animals are never going to call 999. They are silenced and the vast majority of abuse will always go unseen, undetected and un-mourned. Animal abuse will always be easy to get away with. The best way to reduce it is to convince normal people that animal abuse is wrong. If you, like me, ate steak till a few years ago; you know it’s possible to win this struggle without resort to coercion.
4. It’s cynical and shameless
All this being said; the move will hardly impact anyone. Even under the current guidelines, only five people a year on average received the maximum sentence. Criminal justice policy in England and Wales is currently driven a desire to appear tough-on-crime. Legal Blogging phenomenon and best-selling author, The Secret Barrister, has documented a string of recent “cynical and shameless” criminal justice policies aimed designed to “generate tabloid headlines of long prison sentences without having to actually fund those prison places in full.”
Everyone loves an animal story – even the people who eat them. Animal cruelty stories have perfect “bad guys”, to rile up the hang-em-and-flog-em-brigade; but vegans should find few allies in the brigade. Our philosophies ought to be diametrically opposed.
5. Punishment should not be an end in itself
If longer sentences are not going to deter people, why ramp up the punishment? Animal abusers may have done evil things, but vegans in particular should not lust for punishment for its own sake. The foundations of veganism lie in the ancient concept of ahisma, meaning “do no harm”, which is a central tenet of Jainism. Being vegan is about compassion; for non-human animals, for the planet, but also for other humans.
As advocates for compassion, we should be sceptical of embracing carceral solutions. Only last year, Dutch judges refused to extradite a man facing custody in the UK due to the “real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment” in this country’s prisons. Don’t believe those who would have you believe our “cock-eyed crook coddling justice system” gives prisoners the Club-Med experience. Prisons are sad, violent and scarring places. All too often there is little hope of rehabilitation, leaving 50% of offenders re-offending on release.
Gandhi once said that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” In a similar vein, Dotoevsky argued that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What emerges on either view is the idea that we must try to find compassion for the wretched and helpless “other”, those right at the bottom of society’s pecking order. Cruelty begets cruelty; choose compassion.
Samuel March is law student who writes about vegan rights and animal law.