A provision to make large-scale cases of animal abuse a felony was cut from an animal cruelty bill Friday after the committee learned it would cost nearly $27,000 to implement.

Rep. Wendy Pieh, co-chairwoman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, cut a section of the bill, LD 1598, that would have changed the criminal code so that cruelty to more than 25 animals would qualify as a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

“If there had not been a fiscal note to that, I would have left it in,” said Pieh, in reference to the $26,988 analysts estimated it would cost in increased prison time for the change. The amended bill received unanimous committee support.

Pieh, D-Bremen, and committee co-chairman Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, said the bill would still allow the state to collect reimbursement for relocating animals seized in criminal cases and to expedite court hearings when the state faces significant costs to rehabilitate and house abused animals.

“There were three cases in 2008 that cost the Department (of Agriculture) $660,000,” said Nutting. “We’re trying to avoid these types of repeat offenses.”

In order to speed up the court process, the amendment would allow the court to schedule a pre-hearing conference within seven days of having seized animals.

This is important, according to Pieh, because the state could otherwise become party to abuse by keeping an animal alive for weeks in order to decide ownership.

“I’m not afraid to put an animal to death, but I want them to have quality of life,” said Pieh, who raises goats. “Either they go back to the owner or they don’t.”

Currently, most cases of animal cruelty or neglect are misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in prison.

An exception is aggravated cruelty to animals, which is a felony.

At a work session on the bill Wednesday, John Pelletier, chairman of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, told the committee that judges rarely sentence people convicted of animal cruelty to the maximum penalty.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

ewlanford@mainetoday.com