HB 1792 would drop felony penalty for dogfighting to a $500 fine
OKLAHOMA CITY––“What’s next, lobby groups for dogfighters and drug lords?” Animal Wellness Action president Wayne Pacelle asked Oklahoman investigative reporter Ben Felder in early March 2023.
Felder had just revealed that “The Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, a political action committee, has donated more than $70,000 to Oklahoma lawmakers in a push to decrease penalties for participating in the illegal sport,” including $2,000 to Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt.
But lobbyists for dogfighters and drug lords had apparently already been busy indeed in the Oklahoma state legislature, moving stealth legislation to markedly lower the penalties for both dogfighting and a variety of drug-related offenses.
Lowered penalties not just about cockfighting
“Two state bills lowering penalties for animal fighting have cleared the Oklahoma House of Representatives and are now under consideration in the senate,” warned Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block on April 3, 2023.
“Last month,” explained Block, “the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted in favor of HB 1792 and HB 2530, which would among other things decrease the fine for dogfighting to just $500 and reduce penalties for cockfighting to a low-level misdemeanor with a $500 fine.”
HB 2530, the bill to lower the penalties for cockfighting, has been on animal advocacy radar screens for some time. Introduced by state representative Justin Humphrey, a Republican from Lane, in Atoka County, HB 2530 has advanced to the verge of passage despite overwhelming public opposition.
Dogfighting penalty reduced in the name of justice reform
HB 1792, meanwhile, skulked through the Oklahoma House of Representatives with scant recognition from anyone that it would all but decriminalize dogfighting.
Introducing a new system of categorizing the almost 1,100 crimes recognized as felonies in Oklahoma, HB 1792 lists cruelty to animals and cockfighting as class B5 offenses, carrying a maximum fine of $2,000.
Cockfighting might, however, be downlisted to class C2 if HB 2530 clears the Oklahoma Senate and is signed into law by governor Kevin Stitt, the same Kevin Stitt who accepted $2,000 from the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission
Dogfighting is already listed as a class C2 offense under HB 1792, punishable by a maximum fine of $500.
“Terrible step backward”
“This is a terrible step backwards,” blogged Kitty Block.
“The Oklahoma legislature passed a law against dogfighting in 1982,” Block recalled, “and Oklahoma’s cockfighting law was approved by voters on a statewide ballot in 2002, establishing felony penalties for cockfighting and associated activities such as breeding and trafficking animals for fighting.”
But lobbyists for animal fighting, Block continued, “attended campaign events, enjoyed dinner at the governor’s mansion, and even received invitations to the gubernatorial ball. They have been in the state capitol lobbying almost every day since the beginning of the legislative session while committing violations of the state’s ethics laws by not disclosing the source of their donors and not officially registering as lobbyists.”
“Acceptable cost of doing business”
“When animal fighting enthusiasts and traffickers lobby for a reduction in penalties for the crime of animal fighting,” Block added, “it is because the penalty they’re proposing is something they consider an acceptable cost of doing business.
“The cockfighters and sponsors of HB 2530 have even made an outrageous comparison to current criminal justice reform initiatives regarding low-level drug possession,” Block mentioned.
“But there is no comparing that kind of reform, which seeks to engage the problem of individuals’ substance abuse more constructively, with softening penalties for the intentional, organized and violent crimes of dogfighting and cockfighting.”
Reduces penalties for bribery & corruption too
Introduced by Republican state representative Mike Osburn and state senator Dave Rader, a former professional football player and college football coach, HB 1792 would also reduce the penalties for a variety of offenses involving bribery and political corruption.
Yet HB 1792 has gathered considerable momentum under the pretense that it is an omnibus justice reform bill.
“Supporters say House Bill 1792 is long overdue and comes about four years after lawmakers first created a commission tasked with categorizing the state’s nearly 1,100 crimes to see if there can be more consistency in sentencing,” reported Janelle Stecklein of the news portal CNHI Oklahoma on March 24, 2023.
Author says HB 1792 is “work in progress”
“The task force compared Oklahoma’s sentences to other states,” Stecklin summarized, “and then attempted to categorize the offenses into classifications, set recommended sentencing ranges, and examined fines and fees tied to offenses.”
But concerning dogfighting, cockfighting, and cruelty to animals in general, HB 1792 would establish some of the lowest maximum penalties in the entire United States.
Osburn told Stecklin that HB 1792 is a “total work in process.”
The current language, Stecklin paraphrased, “is not final, but the bill had to be approved by the House by the March 23, 2023 deadline in order to remain active for the legislative session.”
Reality is HB 1792 is one vote & one signature from becoming law
That may be what Osburn claimed, but in reality, if HB 1792 is approved by the Oklahoma senate as passed by the Oklahoma house of representatives and signed by Stitt, it is as final as final should be.
Passing HB 1792 as it stands, if Osburn meant what he said, amounted to playing a dangerous game of “chicken” with the cockfighting, dogfighting, and cruelty statutes, and probably a great deal more.
“Supporters say the ultimate goal of the reform is to reduce the amount of time people are sentenced to prison and to create equity in sentencing,” Stecklin continued.
“That would free up additional funds to pay for statewide diversion programs along with expanded mental health and substance abuse treatment, they say,” despite the lack of evident Oklahoma lawmaker enthusiasm for any such enabling legislation.
Currently, Stecklin said, “Oklahomans serve nearly 80% longer in prison for drug crimes compared to the national average, and [serve] twice as long for common property crimes, like larceny,” chiefly due to mandatory sentencing guidelines passed in previous years by Republican-dominated legislatures trying to appear tough on crime.