I Love Dogs (and Hate Dog-Fighting) But Why Are Mandatory Minimums the Answer For Michigan?

While we were waiting to testify before the Michigan Senate Justice Committee in favor of HB 4065 (MDOC Hiring) I was a captive audience during a very disturbing period of testimony in support of a new Senate Bill removing discretion from Judges in the sentences of people convicted of participating in dog-fighting rings (SB 276) .

Let me preface what I am about to say by saying I hate dog-fighting and love dogs (oftentimes more than I love humans). It makes me very sad that there is a so-called “sport” built around brutalizing a breed of dogs that when left to their own devices are invariably sweet and lovable (I absolutely empathize with the loathing and frustration that was poring out of the people testifying in favor of the bill).

Only one problem, there was lots of testimony for why dog-fighting was bad, lots of testimony about people convicted of participating in dog-fighting rings getting light sentences, there was even some weak testimony about how legislatures are superior to judges in determining sentences (a minority opinion picked from, of all places, a Heritage Foundation report) but there was no testimony that the proposed solution (new mandatory minimums) was actually a good idea.

This is supposed to be the era of “Smart On Crime” an era when both Republicans and Democrats can agree that new criminal justice policies should be based on evidence-based results and delivered in a way that maximize societal benefits while reducing costs and disparities.

Mandatory Minimums are NOT a good idea, we have decades of evidence that suggests that Mandatory Minimums have been a total failure by every metric. Basically, they put too many people in prison for too long and all while there is copious evidence suggesting that longer sentences have little to no effect on deterrence or recidivism.

Unfortunately, Mandatory Minimums have also always been associated with massive racial disparities and there has certainly been warranted criticism that much of the furor against dog-fighting seems “animal-rights selective (see horse racing)” and likely deeply ingrained in the history of racism in this country.

There was also some confusing if not outright contradictory testimony. Several people testifying went so far as to suggest that one of the dangers sentencing might prevent was preventing “young kids” from being drawn into the culture of dog-fighting and then become hopelessly lost in criminality. Except that if the culture is to blame, why would you attack the people instead of the culture (diversion and education instead of incarceration)?

Finally, the Bill also adds “Fees and Fines” of up to $50,000 to Mandatory Minimum sentences of up to 4 years for a second offense. Fees and Fines do nothing but pile debt on defendants who after conviction return to society broke and with little help of employment. I have yet to hear any explanation of how adding fees and fines does anything but increase economic insecurity and recidivism.

After decades of learning this hard lesson it seems inconceivable that legislators as experienced and powerful as Margaret O’Brien, Steven Bieda, Rick Jones, and Tony Rocca were co-sponsors.  Hopefully, now that the Bill is headed to the Senate floor, either the full Michigan Senate or House will come to their senses and stop this regressive move.

As Ben Franklin once said (pp), “Passion rarely governs wisely.”

I am all for protecting dogs, but we should not be adding new criminal penalties and fines and fees to the already strained criminal code without strong evidence showing a strong likelihood of success.

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