Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

by Robert Ferber

First stated by Roman philosopher Cicero in 63 B.C. and restated countless times by other philosophers, criminologists, politicians and even Gilbert & Sullivan in “The Mikado”, the basic tenet of the rule of law is letting the punishment fit the crime.

The logic is simple.  A jail sentence for a convicted bank robber accomplishes three things:  He cannot rob another bank while incarcerated; he may not rob again because he doesn’t want to go back to jail; and the rest of society concludes that robbing a bank isn’t worth going to jail. If the sentence is only a modest fine, there is little incentive not to rob again. The fine becomes simply the cost of doing business. It neither deters nor prevents future commission of the crime by that robber or any others.

A prosecutor colleague was assigned to get tough on environmental crimes. Local water and disposal companies had been illegally dumping toxic waste into public waterways and oceans for decades.  There were occasional prosecutions, with corporations readily paying a fine before resuming their illegal dumping. It was an incidental cost of doing business.

This environmental prosecutor decided to take a different tack. He obtained a jail sentence for some wealthy corporate heads, just enough time to make them decide they didn’t want to spend any more time in jail. Decades of toxic dumping abruptly came to a halt, and other Los Angeles businesses began responding to consumer complaints before matters reached the justice system.

Jail isn’t always the answer. In 1981 I was assigned the task of cleaning up a deteriorating Hollywood community, labeled by many as the prostitution capital of the world. Crime rates were rising, businesses fleeing, street crime festering — all facilitated by hundreds of prostitutes along famous Sunset Boulevard. Jail time was the cost of doing business. But when community service was the sentence, the chronic offenders left the area.

The importation of exotic animal parts is a despicable worldwide trade, a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise involving a complex string of people working together to kill, dismember, and then sell the body parts of countless rare and endangered species, from tigers and lions, to gorillas and elephants. There are relatively few resources to investigate and actual prosecutions are rare.

Recently, a woman pled guilty to this heinous crime, admitting to acting as a conduit for thousands of butchered exotic animals and providing an opportunity to send a strong message to the world that this crime is intolerable and will be severely punished.

She was sentenced only to a small fine and probation.

The message was clear: There is no incentive to stop the despicable practice.  In fact, it was viewed almost as a license to resume the marauding.

It wasn’t long ago that animal cruelty crimes were typically given this kind of short shrift in our judicial system.  Someone who starved his or her dog would, at worst, have their dog taken away and be told not to do it again. Dogfighting and cockfighting were rarely investigated or prosecuted. And crimes against wildlife including rare and endangered species? Again, no consequences whatsoever.

Now we are increasingly demanding accountability for crimes against animals. Police are rightly reminded that animal abuse is a real crime deserving their attention. Prosecutors are encouraging more thorough investigations and are filing charges when cruelty comes to light.  Many judges appreciate that animal abuse is a matter to be taken seriously, or at least not to be ignored.

But, as in this case of the woman who callously and illegally traded the heads, skins and body parts of lions, tigers, elephants and gorillas, prosecutors and judges continue to enable the commission of these crimes when they do not impose a punishment that will prevent the offenders from doing it again, and also deter others.

I commend all prosecutors who file criminal charges against animal abusers and the judges who punish these sorts of perpetrators. There is a next step: impose stiff and meaningful sentences where warranted, or you’ll send a message to animal abusers in your jurisdiction and beyond. Cruelty to animals is a serious matter. Let the punishment fit the crime­!

Robert Ferber, deputy director of legal affairs for Animal Wellness Action, was a special prosecutor of animal cruelty crimes for more than 13 years for the City of Los Angeles.

There is a next step: impose stiff and meaningful sentences where warranted, or you’ll send a message to animal abusers in your jurisdiction and beyond.

1 thought on “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”

  1. Animal abuse should incur similar or more severe punishment than normal criminal sentencing. These innocent creatures are unable to defend or protect themselves from the horrendous abuse they tolerate.

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