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Crime and punishment

October 26, 2011
By George J. Bryjak

The torture killing of a great blue heron this past summer triggered outrage on the part of Tri-Lakes residents, with many calling for more severe punishment for this cruelty-to-animals offense. While I agree that the state penalty for this misdemeanor offense - a MAXIMUM $1,000 fine and/or up to one year in prison - is far too light (misdemeanor convictions often result in a fine and no jail time), simply increasing the severity of punishment will not result in a significantly lower incidence of these crimes. ("Buster's Law," so named for an abused cat, was passed in 1999 and carries a prison sentence of up to two years for inflicting "serious physical cruelty to a companion animal with aggravated cruelty.")

Criminologists have long known that optimal levels of both the certainty AND the severity of punishment are necessary if potential offenders are to be successfully deterred from committing crimes. In other words, LOW CERTAINTY and HIGH SEVERITY of punishment will produce a minimal deterrent effect, as will the HIGH CERTAINTY and LOW SEVERITY of punishment.

Consider drunk driving, wherein the certainty of punishment is low while the severity of punishment is high. In New York state, a driving-while-intoxicated conviction can cost upwards of $10,000. This figure includes mandatory fines, civil penalties, lawyer's fees, the cost of lifting a suspension of a driver's license, installing an ignition interlock, completing a driver's-education class and a significant increase in one's auto insurance premiums.

Article Photos

A great blue heron is still alive in this photo taken in August at Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington, but it had to be euthanized shortly afterward due to injuries suffered when two local men threw a large rock at it near the Jay Covered Bridge.
(Photo provided)

However, even with these stiff penalties, studies indicate that as many as 5 percent of drivers on the road weekdays and 12 percent on weekends may be legally drunk. So why are these individuals taking such a risk when the penalties for drunk driving are relatively severe? Simple answer: They know that even though 1.44 million people were arrested in 2009 (latest available data) for drunk driving, the chances of being stopped and arrested (the certainty of punishment) for this offense are low. Many - arguably most - habitual drunk drivers are aware of this low certainty of arrest, if for no other reason than they have driven while under the influence of alcohol many times over the course of years without being stopped by police. Studies indicate that the probability of being pulled over and arrested by law enforcement officers for drunk driving nationwide ranges from between one in 82 to one in 2,000.

The 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 12 coal miners is a perfect example of high certainly of punishment coupled with low (almost nonexistent) severity of punishment resulting in very little, if any, deterrent effect. In 2005 the federal government's Mine Safety and Health Administration issued Sago 205 orders and citations for health and safety violations. Of these, 96 were considered "significant and substantial" violations that placed miners at a high risk of accident and/or injury. As a consequence of these violations, Sago was forced to temporarily halt operations 16 times.

The certainty of punishment for the company was high, but what of the severity of punishment? MSHA reported that Sago was assessed a TOTAL of $24,155 in fines in 2005, with nine of the most serious allegations under appeal. Sago is owned by International Coal Group, a company that reported a profit of $110 million in 2005. The minuscule monetary fines (0.0002 percent of the company's profit) had absolutely no deterrent effect even though the certainty of punishment was high. At a rate of less than $25,000 in penalties per 200 violations, Sago could incur thousands of safety citations annually and the severity of punishment would still be next to nothing. The Washington Post reported that in spite of Sago's abysmal safety record, "Government regulators never publicly discussed shutting down the mine and never sought criminal sanctions." Bottom line: There was no meaningful threat of punishment, either monetary fines or criminal penalties.

In 2005, an Alabama mine where 13 coal miners were killed in 2001 had its (rare) large monetary fine of $435,000 reduced to $3,000 by way of agency negotiators and administrative law judges - a reduction of more than 99 percent. So much for the severity of punishment deterring future mine safety violations at this operation.

Deterrence theory is based on the assumption that criminals are aware of their chances of being arrested, successfully prosecuted and punished. If they are not aware of these chances, then small changes in the certainty and/or severity of punishment will have no impact on their behavior. If the chances of arrest for a given crime rise by 5 percent from one year to the next and/or the prison sentence is increased by one year (for the willful mutilation of wildlife, for example), criminal justice professionals may be aware of these trends but most criminals will not be cognizant of them.

Returning to the blue heron incident, in his Aug. 22 blog, Brian Mann stated: "Wendy Hall, who operates the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington, showed me bird after bird that required care because they had been senselessly shot." And how many more birds are shot (or mutilated in other ways) annually that never come to the attention of wildlife officials and rescuers? Dozens? Hundreds? My guess is that few of the perpetrators of these acts of cruelty have been arrested, meaning that the certainty of punishment for this category of offenses is very low, likely in the ballpark of drunk driving without being arrested.

By all means increase the punishment for cruelty to wildlife offenses. However, unless the certainty of arrest is also increased dramatically by way of law enforcement officers making these crimes a priority (and this increase is widely publicized so that potential offenders become aware of it), the incidence of wildlife offenses will not measurably decline, no matter how stiff the punishment. Unfortunately, with the current round of budget cutting in Albany, we can't expect to see more law enforcement officers in the Adirondacks any time soon, looking for individuals who senselessly kill birds and other wildlife.


P.S.: Animal cruelty can be vicious and sadistic. The Humane Society of New York State notes the following examples: "Two swans were fatally beaten and stabbed in the Bronx. A (Canada) goose was strangled in Hamburg. A baby goose was beaten to death with a hockey stick in Potsdam. Birds were trapped and crushed to death in Long Island."


P.S.S.: Individuals who abuse animals are often abusing family members - children and spouses. A survey of 50 shelters across the country for abused women and children received 48 responses with 42 of these answering questions about animal abuse. Just under 86 percent of these shelter directors answered affirmatively when asked, "Do women who come into your shelter talk about incidents of pet abuse?" When asked if children who come into the shelter talked about incidents of pet abuse in the home, 63 percent responded yes. Another study found that 70 percent of animal abusers also had records for committing other crimes.


George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego.



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Barkan, S. and G. Bryjak (2011) "Fundamentals Criminal Justice: A Sociological View," Jones & Bartlett Publishers: Sudbury, Mass.

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Mann, B. (Aug. 22, 2011) "Why do young men attack wildlife? What can we do to stop it?" Adirondack Daily Enterprise

"New York State Animal Protection Bills" (March 24, 2010) The Humane Society of New York State,

"New York State Cruelty to Animals Statutes" (accessed 2011) The University of Vermont,

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Warwick, J. (Jan. 8, 2006) "Sago Puts Spotlight on Safety Strategy" The Washington Post,

Watson, S. (Oct. 10, 2011) "DWI: The $10,000 Offense," The Buffalo News,



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