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Senate panel passes bill to boost penalty for those who abuse pets

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, speaks on the Senate floor at the Arizona Capitol Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Phoenix. Kavanagh's Senate Bill 1001 in the 2017 legislative session, and passed unanimously in the Senate's Judiciary Committee on Thursday, is a bill that would provide lawsuit protections for people who break into a hot car to rescue a child or animal. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, speaks on the Senate floor at the Arizona Capitol Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Phoenix. Kavanagh's Senate Bill 1001 in the 2017 legislative session, and passed unanimously in the Senate's Judiciary Committee on Thursday, is a bill that would provide lawsuit protections for people who break into a hot car to rescue a child or animal. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — On the narrowest of margins a Senate panel agreed Thursday to boost the criminal penalty on those who purposely and knowingly abuse and kill family pets.

The 4-3 vote by the Commerce Committee came despite the concerns of several lawmakers about simply filling the prisons with more people who may instead be better served with counseling and rehabilitation.

“We have to address a much more deeper rooted issue before beginning to add additional felony counts on individuals,’’ said Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix. And Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, while saying abusers should be punished, wants to look at treatment instead of “making people felons for the rest of their lives.’’

But Rebecca Baker with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said foes were missing the point of the measure. And she said that the change actually could force people to get the help they need — or at least the supervision of their conduct.

The issue arises because current law makes animal cruelty a Class 6 felony. While that technically could land someone in state prison for a year, Baker pointed out that judges have the discretion to designate these offenses as misdemeanors.

And what that is likely to mean, she told lawmakers, is a sentence of unsupervised probation.

House Bill 2671 would make it a Class 5 felony to intentionally or knowingly subject a pet to cruel mistreatment or to kill a pet without the consent of the owner.

On paper, the sentencing is not much different, with a presumptive term of 1.5 years. But the key, said Baker, is it can’t be designated a misdemeanor.

“A felony conviction for these offenders is crucial because misdemeanor offenders can’t be placed on supervised probation,’’ she said. “Getting these offenders on supervised probation is an important step to assessing what interventions are necessary and needed to prevent recidivism.’’

Baker also stressed that prosecution for this crime would be reserved for the worst of the worst.

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