A recent BBC article highlighted that only 8% of those convicted of animal cruelty offences in the last decade have been immediately incarcerated, with the courts appearing to prefer fines, community sentences and suspended sentences instead[](#_ftn1). In Wales, the few who are given custodial sentences rarely serve even 6 months; there were only 2 reported cases of a 6 month sentence, compared to 45 cases which were given less than a month jail time. Those serving between 1 and 6 months in prison are numbered at 55.
Older statistics for England and Wales show a similar story, with only 7% of over 3000 convicts receiving jail terms between 2013 and 2015[](#ftn2). This news comes at a time of continuous, long-term, vocal proposals for available sentences to be toughened. The numerous policy proposals and petitions that have been brought to government highlight a continued public dissatisfaction with how the judiciary has been able to treat convicts with perceived undue leniency[](#ftn3)[](#_ftn4).
There are two issues in this debate that are worth examination; whether the use of custodial sentences compared to alternatives such as fines and animal bans delivers justice for animals, and the effectiveness of the term length of custodial sentences that are handed down. As both debates are important to look at, they will be addressed briefly in turn.
Currently, in England and Wales, the toughest de facto sentence available to be handed down for the most serious animal cruelty cases is six months in prison, an unlimited fine, and a ban on keeping animals[](#ftn5). Interestingly, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 does permit a 51-week custodial sentence to be imposed, however, this is not implementable. As summary-only offences, animal cruelty cases are solely tried in the magistrates, who are currently limited to handing down custodial sentences of no more than 6 months. Because of this, using custodial sentences to their greatest extent (i.e. 51 weeks as determined by parliament) is not possible, and so one can see why many magistrates opt instead to use alternative methods to incarceration. Experienced magistrates will be well versed in the issues associated with short term jail terms which often lead to ineffective, and sometimes counter-intuitive, institutionalisation. Short-term prisoners have, on average, 16 previous convictions, which is more than any other group of offenders, and are more likely to re-offend: around 60 per cent are convicted of at least one offence in the year after release[](#ftn6). With this in mind, one may be sympathetic to magistrates doing what they can with the limited powers they have to safeguard animals, even if it is just a ban on a defendant owning animals again. How effectual short-term incarceration is is an important question to answer, as trends show that the proportion of people receiving community sentences for animal cruelty offences has actually increased, from 28% in 2006 to 37% in 2016[](#_ftn7). If short-term incarceration continues to be perceived as ineffective, then non-custodial sentence rates will continue to increase.
A further argument that is often cited is cost. A six-week stay in prison costs, on average, £4,500. In 2008, it was estimated that even the most intensive, multi-year community order would only cost £4,200 per offender, with more average-length community orders costing £1,400[](#ftn8). In this vein, there is value for money being delivered to the taxpayer when jail time is avoided, but only if these methods work. However, whether these methods work is by no means easily answered. Looking purely at rates of recidivism after issuing community orders and custodial sentences, the answer is often that it is unclear whether non-custodial sanctions are more effective, when it comes to preventing re-offence than custodial sanctions[](#ftn9).
Importantly, from an animal law perspective, not enough research has been done on which sentences lead to lower animal cruelty recidivism. Considering the frequent ineffectiveness of short-term prison sentences, there may be sufficient cause for magistrates to not sentence at the maximum and prefer rehabilitative-based programs. From this, we must then consider whether the solution to improving the legal status of animals is to increase the maximum prison sentence for these crimes, giving magistrates the tools to sufficiently rehabilitate and punish animal cruelty offenders.
Despite the lack of empirical evidence in this area, if it is accepted that custodial sentences are a legitimate means of addressing animal cruelty offences, as many do, the maximum sentences for animal cruelty must then be examined. Currently, it has been reported that only one in five people believe that the maximum sentence for animal cruelty is either appropriate or too high compared to 65% of the population who believe that the maximum penalty should be increased[](#_ftn10). This shows that people from all sides of the political spectrum perceive animal cruelty sentences to be too lenient, and not just those who would naturally call for harsher sentences anyway (i.e. those who pursue retributive justice more generally).
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (BDCH), in their ‘Cruelty Report’, showed the comparison between animal cruelty offences and other offences starkly: six months for animal cruelty compares poorly with seven years for theft[](#ftn11). Some have suggested that this comparison is misleading, however. While these are accurate figures, they do not act in isolation. It is asserted that offences involving animal cruelty exist as a benchmark for the sentencing of other, comparable crimes. Therefore, to increase the maximum penalty available for these offences will set a new benchmark, which would create pressure to re-examine the existing penalties available for other cruelty or violence-based offences such as those committed on human beings[](#ftn12).
This view, while generally true, does appear to ignore some key nuances of this argument. Firstly, maximum sentences are a political, and not a legal issue; they are set by parliament and can therefore be taken in isolation. In other words, it is perfectly simple to address this concern by parliament specifying that animal cruelty offences are not to be used as a sentencing benchmark. Secondly, it ignores the discrepancy between the maximum legal sentence currently used, and the practical one. If these offences were used as benchmarks, there would be no reason for other, comparable, offences not to increase to the 51-week legal maximum, as opposed to the 6-month practical limit. Furthermore, the maximum sentence in question is particularly low. 6 months as the absolute maximum is an extraordinarily low sentence considering the wrongs that are potentially committable, and have been committed, on animals. It is for this reason that public opinion is in favour of tougher sentencing. The fact that animal cruelty offences are used as a benchmark illustrates wrong benchmarking policy, not wrong sentencing.
A second reservation regarding increasing maximum sentences is the willingness of magistrates and judges to use them[](#ftn13). This would seem to hold as an argument due to the previously mentioned statistic that illustrated only 2 maximum sentences were handed out during the period examined. This would appear to show that higher sentences are no panacea for the outrage caused by ‘lenient’ sentences. However, this does not stand. Recently, the body representing magistrates in the UK claimed magistrates, if given the chance, would pass down the full range of sentences available to them[](#ftn14). It is logical to look at sentences and believe, if the current maximum sentence is not enough, then one should always apply the highest sentence possible. But this ignores the fact that magistrates wish to reflect the severity of the case, multiple cases, guilty pleas, and a whole host of other concerns that are raised when passing sentence[](#_ftn15). A higher maximum sentence will still involve the determination of these factors, however, the average sentence length would likely become more reflective of public opinion. It is expected that, if given greater sentencing power, magistrates, and maybe judges in future, would endeavour to make use of the greater range.
Up until this point, this article has chosen not to address the fact that the government has committed to raising the maximum animal cruelty sentences to five years[](#ftn16). The reason for this, is that, as of yet, this has not been implemented, and government still waits for “when parliamentary time allows”[](#ftn17). As such, from a legal perspective, it is only possible to comment on the issues surrounding the debate on the law as it currently stands.
Even with this commitment, it is interesting to ask what kind of maximum sentences are reserved for animal cruelty culprits around the world. Starting with the rest of the UK, in Scotland, under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, the maximum penalty is one year. In Northern Ireland, under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, the maximum penalty is five years[](#ftn18). From a UK perspective then, the proposals would put England and Wales in line with their Northern Irish counterparts. Across the world, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home’s Cruelty Report looked at 100 jurisdictions, and determined that over half (54%) can impose a prison sentence of 3 years or more, a third (34%) can impose a sentence of 5 years or more in prison, and 8% allow for prison sentences of more than 5 years[](#ftn19). As such, against arguments from some that the additional cost incurred from implementing the governments’ proposal would not have any effect[](#ftn20), it would certainly establish England and Wales as world leaders in the fight for animal rights. This would certainly be a substantial move from the current law, which places us in the bottom 7% of surveyed jurisdictions regarding maximum sentence duration[](#ftn21)[](#_ftn22). It would certainly be of benefit, then, that parliamentary time allow this reform to be brought forward swiftly, as even the soft diplomatic power that this could give the UK would substantially further the cause of animals.
In conclusion, this article has looked at sentences passed down to offenders of animal cruelty. The reasons for giving non-custodial sentences, as often occurs , were examined, before examining the debates and concerns around raising the maximum sentence. Concerns regarding raising the maximum sentence were examined, before looking at an international comparison of the UK’s maximum sentence. To this end, will the proposed government reforms be enough? Connecticut and Alabama both have maximum sentences for defendants of animal cruelty of 10 years[](#_ftn23). Are the governments’ reforms simply going to be met with an immediate call for even greater sentencing? And when will the public be satisfied that sentences are fit for purpose? This article cannot answer these questions, however it is these enquiries that will underline policy on animal cruelty sentencing in the coming years, and animal lawyers should remain aware of such trends.
[](#_ftnref10) http://www.bdch.org.uk/files/Cruelty-Report.pdf p.7
[](#_ftnref11) http://www.bdch.org.uk/files/Cruelty-Report.pdf p.2
[](#_ftnref18) http://www.bdch.org.uk/files/Cruelty-Report.pdf pp.6-7
[](#_ftnref19) http://www.bdch.org.uk/files/Cruelty-Report.pdf p. 13
[](#_ftnref21) http://www.bdch.org.uk/files/Cruelty-Report.pdf p.12
[](#_ftnref23) http://www.bdch.org.uk/files/Cruelty-Report.pdf p. 22
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