Mar 20, 2024 - News

New Washington law stiffens penalties on animal cruelty

A photo of a black, tan and white puppy.
18-week-old Toba was rescued by Pasado's Safe Haven, which worked with legislators to craft the bill. Photo: Courtesy of Pasado's Safe Haven

A bill that imposes tougher criminal penalties for animal cruelty convictions was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee last week and takes effect on June 6.

Why it matters: The new law elevates the punishment for first-degree animal cruelty — which is already a class C felony — by reclassifying it as a crime that is ranked level III on the seriousness scale.

  • The reclassification means that people convicted of animal cruelty could face a standard sentence range of two months to five years, depending on their criminal history, compared to the 0–364 days they typically face if convicted of an unranked felony.

What they're saying: The measure promotes respect for all living beings "and sets a powerful precedent for other states to follow," Brenna Anderst of Pasado's Safe Haven — which worked with legislators to craft the bill — told Axios.

How it works: Supporters say House Bill 1961, which overwhelmingly passed both chambers earlier this year, adds uniformity to sentencing by elevating the crime to a ranked, as opposed to unranked, felony.

  • No standard sentence range applies for unranked felonies, per the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
  • Currently, only animal cruelty involving sexual conduct is a level III offense.
  • But under the new law, the intentional infliction of pain or death and starving, dehydrating or exposing animals to excessive temperatures will also be ranked offenses, per legislative staff speaking at a House committee hearing in January.

Because the current law doesn't categorize all first-degree animal cruelty as a serious ranked felony, it has been difficult for prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys to litigate animal cruelty cases uniformly, according to a summary of public testimony in support of the bill.

  • Under the current law, people who abused multiple animals could get the same sentence as people who abused one animal, said the bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Sam Low (R-Lake Stevens).
  • In Washington, criminal sentences are based on the seriousness of the crime, as well as the offender's criminal history.
  • The changes are consistent with recommendations made by the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, said Low.
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