In the lead up to their annual conference, the Conservatives are proposing marked increases in sentences for those convicted of animal cruelty – though not, apparently, for the cruelties involved in hunting foxes. And from time to time, the newspapers express their anger at what they take to be lenient sentences for repellent crimes against animals .
One debate to be had is whether sending someone to prison – where they will rarely be challenged to think about the wrongs they have done – has any advantage over (for example) putting them under probation supervision, where they can be encouraged and enabled to understand why these crimes are so appalling. But the claim seems to be that longer sentences will deter others. This belief has no evidence to support it. In some cases it is wholly implausible: no one contemplating an offence thinks “Well I wouldn’t do this if I would go to prison for two / three years, but it’d be worth it for one.” It is not at all clear, then, that longer sentences would lead to any reduction in animal suffering.
One suspects that it is anger that prompts the proposal to increase the sentence and anger is a wholly understandable response to cruelty. Anger, though, however well-grounded, is rarely a good guide to public policy, as Martha Nussbaum so persuasively argues. And once we realise that there is no uniquely appropriate amount of punishment that is fitting for any crime, the best we can do is to make sure that graver crimes attract heavier sentences and less serious offences attract lighter ones. This could be achieved by reducing the level of punishment for these lesser crimes. If people get longer sentences for (say) property crimes than for animal cruelty, justice can be preserved by decreasing sentences for the former. The argument is that once deterrent arguments are found unconvincing, the way to mark our disgust at animal cruelty is not to increase sentences for this crime, but to reduce sentences for crimes that we recognise to be less serious.
If it makes sense to rank crimes in order of seriousness, reducing sentences for less serious crimes is, in general, greatly to be preferred to increasing sentences for worse ones. The belief that we can only mark our outrage by ever-longer sentences leads to a spiral of punitive inflation, larger prison populations and dreadful consequences for human beings (and their families), who like other animals, should never be treated with cruelty.