Longer prison sentences won’t stop animal cruelty

Published by The Times (14th December, 2017)

Michael Gove seeks to show that Brexit means we can take back control of our laws. The Tories are desperate to demonstrate they have a heart after reviving their nasty party image. So together they have alighted on animal rights to show their resolve — and the environment secretary promises extra protection for pets, with a tenfold increase in maximum sentences for animal cruelty.

Who could argue with such a move? Yet pause for a moment. For this is self-serving posturing by politicians of the sort that has cost Britain dearly, with endless new laws designed to win headlines rather than reduce crime.

Yes, animal cruelty is appalling. Just like knife crime. Or acid attacks. Or any other issue in which Westminster is urged to “do something” by lobby groups or the media. Yet as behavioural economists have shown, humans are highly irrational creatures and there is little if any evidence that the threat of jail serves to deter animal abuse.

Mr Gove knows this better than most, since in his previous job as justice secretary he understood how prison fails to solve the health and social issues behind most crime. I took him to Texas for a Panorama documentary where he saw the Republican right leading a rehabilitation revolution. He could have been a great prison reformer. Now he plays to the gallery.

We have seen this so often before, from Michael Howard proclaiming “prison works” through to New Labour with a fresh criminal offence for every day in office. Yet look at knife crime. Prosecutions have risen and prison sentences near-doubled in length over the past decade because of inflexible laws. Prison does not stop people carrying these weapons.

Most people convicted of animal cruelty do not go to jail. Fines serve a minimal purpose since they are often unpaid: far better to make miscreants work in animal sanctuaries under strict supervision to make them understand the sentience of animals. As one Ministry of Justice source pointed out, the only certainty about this virtue signalling is that prisons will become more crowded because cruelty to people always attracts longer sentences than cruelty to pets.

The prison population, which has doubled in two decades, will swell further. Each of the 85,948 English and Welsh inmates costs £35,000 a year yet as deaths, drug use and violence surge behind bars, these damaged individuals often return to society in worse shape than when they left. If only politicians who present themselves as animal-lovers cared a bit more about their fellow human beings.


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