Earlier this year a Cornell student was arrested for savagely beating and pouring a bleach mixture on a dog that he was ostensibly taking care of for his friend. He was just sentenced to six-months for felony animal abuse. The story got a lot of press and discussion around here. We are in Ithaca, after all: home of the country’s only No Kill, Open Admission animal shelter (‘no kill’, I learned recently, is compatible with euthanizing animals — the subtleties of the English language escape me) and home of the vegetarian icon, Moosewood Restaurant. Anyway, it was kind of interesting following the story and seeing what sort of ridiculous things might be said, both by those apparently attribute more rights to animals than to humans and those who apparently would think nothing wrong with idly torturing animals.
But another interesting thing showed up in the story today about the sentencing. Apparently the prosecuting attorney thinks that the guy deserves a stiff sentence because there is ‘a statistical correlation between people who are violent toward animals and people who are violent toward humans’.
Umm, okay, I don’t dispute the correlation, but how is that relevant? There is also a statistical correlation between being poor and committing crimes. Does that mean that poor people should get harsher sentences? There is also a statistical correlation between committing one crime and committing more crimes. Does that mean that we should sentence first-time offenders not only for the crime they’ve actually committed but also for the correlation?
I thought it was a basic principle in Western judicial traditions that you can only punish people for crimes that they have in fact already committed and not for ones that they may or are likely to commit (i.e., regardless how many statistical indicators suggest that you are likely to become a criminal, you can’t be punished until you actually commit a crime). So a question for those of you who know something about law: Am I missing something here?